Overlooked Films Since 2010
Part of the role of the critic is underlining special films that undeservedly were swept under the rug. Actually, in all my years writing about film, this is really my most crucial function. A four-star blockbuster doesn’t need my help, nor does it make a dent if I scorn a two-star blockbuster movie seeped in formula. But the movies that got away, the ones underpromoted and dumped by the studio, or didn’t connect with audience hunger at the time — those are the ones that matter to write about. Of the twenty movies I write about from the first half of this decade, 15 of them I would give three and a half stars or higher. The other five, well, they’re three star movies but let’s just pretend they are three and a half stars since I found enough reason to talk about them. Alphabetically listed:
BIG EYES (2014, 105 Minutes, PG-13) was Tim Burton’s first good film in ten years, centered on the 1950’s art work of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and the conniving husband (Christoph Waltz) who stole author and sales credit. Her art prevails today, and it’s good-looking art. This is surprisingly stark material on a bullying relationship between one talented woman and a charismatic louse husband.
CELL 211 (2010, 110 Minutes, NR, Spanish with English subtitles) has a man report a day early to his new job as a guard and coincidentally finds himself assimilating with the rest of a block of prisoners following a prison riot. There are perhaps a couple far-fetched convolutions of plot, but overall, this is a pulsating thriller with ingenious extras choreography. The suspense of whether or not the guard’s life can be saved is palpable.
COHERENCE (2014, 89 Minutes, NR) has a few early pretentious moments, but it’s a pleasurable miniscule-low-budget gem. After neighborhood power goes out, a dinner party enters a Twilight Zone-inspired fifth dimension. They try to find other friendly neighbors, but what they find are mirrored versions of “themselves.” Clever and creepy.
COMPLIANCE (2012, 90 Minutes, R) is a mean little number based on middle America true events, a depiction of a prank phone caller pretending to be a police officer and the gullible bunch at a fast food chicken restaurant who listens to his orders. It’s an unforgettable look at the power of suggestion. Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy are the key players.
THE CONGRESS (2013, 132 Minutes, Unrated) is too rambling to be a masterpiece, it drags in spots, but when it connects it is as ambitious a mind-bender as there has been in years. Robin Wright, playing a variation of herself the actress, sells the digital rights of herself to a movie studio and finds herself twenty years later corrupted, and astray, in an animated world. Most of the world’s disenfranchised population prefers to live as avatars in animation, and if you grimace hard enough, you see how this links to the themes of Hollywood art degraded, too. This picture, though, by writer/director Ari Folman, is nonetheless art just as much as Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”
DEALIN’ WITH IDIOTS (2013 Minutes, 88 Minutes, Unrated) is written and directed by the great comedian and cast member of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” Jeff Garlin, and the cynic can say it’s missing a certain kind of disciplined craft. But he really lets the camera roll while his loopy co-stars amble on in their genuine idiot behavior, and the results are hilarious. There are kids playing baseball, the parents, the umpire, and well, most of them are idiots. I was honestly touched by the ultimate fantasy scene. Another Garlin slice of life I enjoyed was his 2006 directorial debut, “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With.”
FROZEN GROUND (2013, 105 Minutes, R) is one piece of evidence that proves Nicolas Cage is still a good actor, as an Alaska state trooper looking to trap serial killer Robert Hansen (John Cusack). When it comes to serial killer movies, there are “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven” at top tier, and then the rest – well, there’s just too many derivative titles. Yet I believe this is a good one, I was riveted.
HOME (2010, 93 Minutes, NR, Swiss with English subtitles) depicts a happy family that has lived off of an incomplete highway for years, only for public road construction to begin again and thus spoil their living space. Slowly, we come to see them as a dysfunctional family (Olivier Gourmet, Isabelle Huppert as the parents) whom have had long dormant fears and aversion to adaptation on a number of levels. Thoroughly compelling, psychologically absorbing, and nearly flawless.
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2012, 81 Minutes, PG) is a swift foodie documentary on the world’s best sushi chef (hence, most comprehensive and meticulous in preparation), found in Tokyo, Japan. Many rich and famous people have gone out of their way to eat there for $300 per person. Philip Glass’ music from “The Hours” complements the images.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND (2015, 108 Minutes, R) is the truest delivery of impressive filmmaking by Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden since their 2006 debut masterpiece “Half Nelson.” – they’ve coasted along on tiny slices of life since then with “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and “Sugar,” okay movies but not much there. Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds are gambling addicts whom both profess there are worse junkies than them (liars!) is this crackling, cogent character study of observing two hazard cases living on the edge. Loose remake of Robert Altman’s 1974 “California Split.”
MONSTERS (2010, 94 Minutes, Unrated) could be the first ever intellectual monster movie. In the near future, a space probe captured gigantic tentacle beings but then upon a return to Earth inevitably crash landed, turning Northern Mexico into an “Infected Zone.” Photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scott McNairy) has been hired to escort Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), a rich man’s daughter, from Southern Mexico back to the States by rickety buses, vessel ships, and motor boats as means of travel. The latter requires a ride through the Infected Zone which they are informed to proceed at their own risk. The U.S. Military has a strong fortified defense and espouse a strike without warning policy at the Border. Compelling, extremely well-photographed, and surprisingly – if ironically – beautiful.
OSLO, AUGUST 31st (2012, 95 Minutes, NR, Norwegian with English subtitles) follows a damaged young man 10-months clean from drug addiction on the one day set free by the drug rehab center so he can attend a job interview. If Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a self-sabotage case, it’s because “I like it when people feel sorry for me.” Anders has the smarts to reintegrate productively into society, but if he were to really want to live differently, he for one should remove himself from his rat’s nest hometown of Oslo. Then there are the regrets of lost time. If he had only cleaned up seven years ago, or five years ago, or three… etc. etc. It’s a wrenching film.
PERFECT SENSE (2011, 91 Minutes, R) is a shivery contagion thriller that should grip you in the same way that “Children of Men” did. Ewan McGregor and Eva Green as a chef and epidemiologist embrace in hot sex while an unsolvable epidemic takes away the sense of smell from the world’s population. Just as the world adjusts to this single catastrophe, a new wave of horrors consume: the mass population loses the sense of hearing. Directed by the underrated David Mackenzie (“Young Adam”).
ROOM 237 (2013, 102 Minutes, NR) is a whacked but engrossing deconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” not by veritable critics but by super-obsessed fans who find a myriad of hidden meanings and conspiracies from within the film, such as the far-flung argument that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing. For the true “Shining” lovers, this documentary extrapolates on Kubrick’s usage of subliminal imagery within the film.
SPRING BREAKERS (2013, 93 Minutes, R) is the misanthropic, female-debasing avante-garde film by Harmony Korine that is for a few moments nihilistically ugly, then… fascinating as a sociological portrait of nihilism itself. Four college girls go to St. Petersburg (led by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine), get arrested in their bikinis, then get bailed out by James Franco as a repugnant hustler and opportunist. Some might feel severely bothered that there aren’t any three-dimensional people here, but that’s the point, these aren’t people with three-dimensions in them. I took an admiration for this movie like I would a David Lynch or Gaspar Noe film.
TANGERINE (2015, 88 Minutes, R) spends a day in the life with two transgender prostitutes who work the squalid East Hollywood area. It’s part comedy, [social landscape] horror film, and tragedy. The human behavior at the donut shop, where the two get into a jealous spat with their pimp, is for the crazy highlight reel. There’s no denying, though, that when it comes to no-names in casts, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez gives the most jaw-dropping performance by someone you’ve never seen before.
TERRI (2011, 106 Minutes, R) is a teen misfit drama with Jacob Wysocki is the titular fat kid who wears pajamas to school because he claims “they’re comfortable” but really it’s just a pretense for his depression. John C. Reilly plays the outlandish assistant principal Fitzgerald, who sets aside time to befriend Terri. Then we meet Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who is both pretty and decimated by such low self-esteem that she needs a Terri type to redeem her. The fat kid and the pretty girl? Improbable, but the keen and nuanced writing by Patrick Dewitt and directing by Azazel Jacobs makes them absolutely believable.
WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2013, 98 Minutes, R) is a divorce drama that tells its story in the point of view of a 6-year old who is tugged between exceedingly selfish parents (Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore), that only fail this sweet little girl. An improbable situation of two others coming in to save Maisie makes this a peculiar, but special film. It’s too aching for youngsters, and is strictly for adult viewing.
YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL (2013, 95 Minutes, R, French with English subtitles) concerns a 17-year old girl (Marine Vacth) who believes she is immune to disaster and an imperious belief she possesses wisdom – she comes from a well-off family yet anyway decides to be a prostitute for older men. There is stubborn coldness and fleeting warmth in this story, and long after it’s over, it’s haunting. Francois Ozon (“In the House”) directed, and I happen to believe this is his best film.
THE ZERO THEOREM (2014, 107 Minutes, R) is way too claustrophobic for a futuristic sci-fi trip, but that’s only because – let’s face it – writer-director Terry Gilliam these days is impeded by budget constrictions in order to get his projects off the ground. Christoph Waltz plays a computer programmer who practically chooses to work himself to death. The beach fantasy forays, a sharp contrast to the rest of this hellish enclosed vision, is some of the best work Gilliam has ever done. You need to be an effin’ cerebral geek to enjoy this one. It’s true (you think!?), that I sometimes I happen to qualify as one.
RESURGENT CLASSICS: FROM DISMISSED AT TIME OF RELEASE TO GOLD STATUS
Here is a list of 15 films that got lukewarm to good reviews in their day but really have a resurgent cinephile following in contemporary years. Or another way to put it, they’re major classics now even if they weren’t then:
1. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, 166 Minutes, PG-13) – An epic western about desperate businessmen and gunfighters’ dreams and follies, how rare is that? Sergio Leone often goes for pure visual storytelling without dialogue. At the time, it was thought as an overblown western with a thin plot, possibly thought of as thin only because the first hour sets up mood and circumstance instead of throwing expository plot information at us. Henry Fonda in his first bad guy role, Charles Bronson as the laconic hero seeking mysterious revenge and Claudia Cardinale as the beauty just trying to stake a reasonable life worth living. Greatest film critic Roger Ebert gave it two and a half stars but later hinted that he’d been wrong about it. Now it’s regarded by a mass consensus as an idiosyncratic western masterpiece.
2. The Gambler (1974, 111 Minutes, R) – James Caan tries to be a super stud by gambling with money he doesn’t have. Critics liked it but saw it as only a gambling movie, as if that subject limited its worth. A couple decades later, critics and cinephiles realize the ’70’s was a golden era for radical filmmaking, and new appreciation is given for this pic’s grit and intelligence. Seriously, why was “Mean Streets” immediately embraced the year before but not this? Here’s also a protagonist that skirts excitement in narrowly dodging highest stakes of danger with the bookies and company he keeps. Today, the dark ending is something of a shocker. Former review.
3. Sorcerer (1977, 121 Minutes, PG) – This heady, machismo action film (too much set-up, too much brainy plot! was the complaint) was released on June 24, 1977 while “Star Wars” had been released on May 25 and still packing in repeat business. This remake of the just as robust French classic “Wages of Fear” (1953) is known today for two things: Mesmerizing jungle scenery that is without par, and an uncommonly intelligent and anti-formula script for an action film. The plot: Roy Scheider is one of four men who have to navigate a transport truck over South American mountains while carrying lethal nitroglycerin that if banged up can blow them all to smithereens. Perfectionist William Friedkin, whose “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” solidified him as a major director, has said this is the only movie he’s made where he wouldn’t re-do a single shot. In recent years, it is gaining classic status thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s top ten of all time declaration and other disciple critics. Former review.
4. Slap Shot (1977, 123 Minutes, R) – The complaint was it was only a foul-mouthed and guts-spewing hockey film, and anything this rowdy and entertaining can’t possibly be taken seriously. The grubby, grey tones cinematography was a good choice for this middle-class story of minor leaguers about to lose their team because the owner doesn’t think they have resale value. It didn’t bode well with prudish critics that there’s a man’s naked ass on the rink in the finale. Boo hoo if you’re one of them not laughing. Paul Newman considered this his favorite of all films. Gene Siskel admitted he was wrong about his initial mediocre review and considered it later as a favorite comedy. We’re all watching it and recommending it as the ultimate hockey movie some forty years later.
5. The Shining (1980, 143 Minutes, R) – The best horror film ever made and probably the best one there will ever be. It’s my favorite film of this article. It’s kind of ridiculous that I have to list it at all, but in truth, many baffled critics found it incoherent and strewn with red herrings. The Razzies had nominated it for Worst Actress and Worst Director. Devotees over the years now revere it for its supernatural elements, its haunted symbolism, its hypnotic camerawork that spells delirium and claustrophobia. I see something else: A parable of the world’s most loveless marriage. This is the Stanley Kubrick film that scrambles the brain the longest and after years of dissecting it I’m starting to see more disturbing subliminal touches than I’ve ever seen before. It’s all so endlessly fascinating. Former review.
6. The Thing (1982, 109 Minutes, R) – No character development, many groused. If those critics could have only anticipated no character development in a glut of movies regularly thirty years later, geez, they must all be having temper tantrums now. That complaint to me still makes no sense. We’re trapped in an isolated research lab in Antarctica and it is too damn freezing for anybody to be extra friendly. It makes story sense that Kurt Russell, David Clennon, T.K. Carter, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, Wilford Brimley and others must wish they had been more friendly with each other now that an extra-terrestrial killer parasite is imitating them. This John Carpenter entry is a scary film the first six times you watch it.Former review.
7. Runaway Train (1985, 111 Minutes, R) – There’s a little bit of bad ’80’s pump you up music, but that goes away fast. Rare for an action movie, Jon Voight and Eric Roberts grabbed Oscar nominations for playing two escaped Alaskan convicts who hitch on a four-locomotive train that loses its driver. It was based on an unused Akira Kurosawa screenplay, which was honestly better suited for an American studio. Still, for a long time, “Runaway” was thought of as just an action movie while it’s also an existential tragedy. When critic Michael Phillips took over Ebert’s seat on the “At the Movies” television program, he called it the most underrated movie of the 1980’s. The director was Andrei Konchalovsky, but I’m afraid he was a one-hit wonder. Former review.
8. Joe vs. the Volcano (1990, 102 Minutes, PG) – The best American movie of 1990 that wasn’t “GoodFellas,” this truly marvelous comedy has Tom Hanks as a working stiff who learns he has six months to live, and sets out for a world travel adventure. His boss will let him live rich for the remainder of his life if he agrees to jump into a volcano at the end of the line, and Meg Ryan is the love interest who discourages him from taking the leap. Time Magazine film critic Richard Schickel named this his favorite guilty pleasure, but recalls how at its release a few slammed it as being a toneless oddity. Not toneless at all, it’s simply a very whimsical fairytale that is simply incomparable. Directed by John Patrick Shanley. Former review.
9. Point Break (1991, 122 Minutes, R) – Bank robbers vs. an FBI agent fresh out of the academy, or in another way, Patrick Swayze versus Keanu Reeves. Two stars often dismissed as hunky and not talented, but I say they work because Swayze and Reeves have a wild youth to them. And how about those three endings? What seemed silly in the year of its release is deemed seriously awesome now. An action film with no computerized special effects, blood-rushing stuntwork, dazzling camerawork, astonishing skydiver shots and a plot that holds water, well, well, well… They don’t make them like this anymore, and it’s an early Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) movie that proves her flair for kinetic action that flows. Watch it again, and those three “endings” are congruous.
10. Groundhog Day (1993, 101 Minutes, PG) – The New York film critics got it more than everybody else by awarding it second place for the year’s Best Screenplay. To many, it was merely good and nothing more at the time. That was until it became the movie everybody saw a dozen times (Ebert initially had a three-star review until he later included it as an entry into his Great Movies series). You know the plot of this popular entertainment by now, Bill Murray is a cranky weatherman who re-lives February 2 over and over again in a time loop until he finds one way out (it ain’t suicide). It’s incredibly funny every time with resonant big philosophical questions about life.Former review.
11. Seven (1995, 127 Minutes, R) – It shocked big business at the box office, meaning it made money because of its gotta see it “shock” value. The grisly serial killer tale was seen as gripping storytelling, with a particular dark and dank look by David Fincher that made for sleazoid art but not particularly serious art. Look years later, it holds a legitimate claim that it hearkens Dante’s “Inferno.” Plus, this is one of Morgan Freeman’s great performances, as a wise cop of muted jadedness who feels obliged to mentor the young Brad Pitt cop who is too cocky and without professional acumen. Freeman with his discerning insight is the only one that understands the horrid internal nature of the John Doe serial killer. As for Fincher, at the time he was still an unproven director with only the mixed result of “Alien 3” behind him. It took time to be convinced Fincher consciously knew what he was doing all along.
12. Gattaca (1997, 106 Minutes, PG-13) – It had solid and admirable reviews when it came out, but now it is often cited and referenced. Genetic engineering has become a major issue in today’s times, and here’s the sci-fi film that predates before it became popular topic. I always have thought Ethan Hawke and especially Uma Thurman were terrific, the former born with normal flawed genes and the latter born with genetically engineered genes to siphon perfection. I still think Jude Law gives a poor performance as the genetically designed NASA guy who has become paralyzed and now shares his DNA with Hawke’s invalid. Still, this is a remarkable flick.
13. Jackie Brown (1997, 155 Minutes, R) – I now rank this as Tarantino’s third best, behind “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglorious Basterds.” I don’t know why it was felt as some kind of placeholder until another major “Pulp” kind of movie came along, but years later, you love “Jackie Brown” on its own terms. You also look at Samuel L. Jackson’s entire body of work, and here as a streetwise gunrunner who talks in circles – embedding subtle threats in his language – well, this could be his greatest performance. Not a single award went to Jackson for his work as Ordell. The behind the scenes comeback story fawned over character actor Robert Forster, who did get an Oscar nomination. The language and double-crossing in the story is more than “moderately entertaining” as critics at large said, see it anytime these days and it’s a brilliant, scheming knock-out. Former review.
14. The Grey Zone (2002, 108 Minutes, R) – The despairing concentration camp Holocaust film too grim and without a conventional catharsis (to some). All the characters know they are going to die, they can put off death for a few weeks, and perhaps blow up one of the Nazi’s crematoriums as redemption. Critics lambasted the stylized philosophical dialogue that happens between camp inmates. Some like me say that this is how people in life and death matters would speak if they poured their heart and soul into their words. “The Pianist,” a worthy WWII film by Roman Polanski, won three Oscars and had an ultimately triumphant tale that overshadowed this Tim Blake Nelson film. But in truth, this is now the Holocaust film that haunts as much as “Schindler’s List.” Former review.
15. Burn After Reading (2008, 96 Minutes, R) – The Coens had just won Oscars for “No Country for Old Men” and the thought-process was this next one is just a breathable lark for them to make. This tale of CIA officials, analysts, spies and dupes entangled in Washington, is one of the most endlessly amusing movies of dry humor that one can’t get tired of. I got it in 2008, placing it as my number #2 film of the year. My taste has changed slightly as my Top Five of 2008 would now read like this: “The Dark Knight,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Burn After Reading,” “The Wrestler.” Of those five, the Coens milk the most entertainment out of no sweat, effortless work.Former review.
I could have easily reached further back to discuss “Make Way for Tomorrow” (1937), “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “Vertigo” (1958), “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967). Boy, that those classics got bad reviews in their day is truly, truly shocking. THREE WEEKS AFTER POST: I will make the confession that I overlooked “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990) which should have been included in discussion. I will consider working in a revision at a later date.
BEST FILMS OF THE 1980’s
I don’t believe an entire decade can be summed up with ten films. So I’m going with twenty! And after twenty, I wanted to mention another thirty plus fun movies! Some of the fun movies on the bottom are art (worthy of 4 or 5 star ratings), some are just favorite thrills or barrel of laughs of mine. The core selections of the 1980’s do say something about the culture, the information breakthroughs, the fads and represent the artistic pinnacles of the time. And yes, I’m probably the only critic whose top three are “Raging Bull, “E.T.” and “The Shining” in that order. Hey, favorites fall where they fall.
1. Raging Bull (1980, 128 Minutes, R) – The quintessential Martin Scorsese art film. This biopic has Robert DeNiro as Italian-American Jake LaMotta, a middleweight champion boxer with major self-esteem issues. His faults were so abrasive that he estranged everybody around him. Two minutes of Jake behaving tastefully do not always pardon a third of great tastelessness. Joe Pesci is his brother and trainer. Cathy Moriarty is his Madonna-whore wife, that is, because he touched her virginal essence she must now be a scornful slut. Jake builds grudges for years, then explodes. The film is in impeccable black & white, it’s stark and impromptu. The camera dances around in the ring or pummels into the action hard. I’m not sure there is a redemption to the film other than to express some men cross the line to ever be granted another shot at redemption. DeNiro gained 70 pounds for the later scenes of aged ogre LaMotta. It’s his best performance.
2. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982, 120 Minutes, PG) – Steven Spielberg’s eternal gift to the kid inside me. I feel my innocence restored anytime I watch Spielberg’s ode to friendship, to hearts that soar, and anything else cheesy and sentimental that one can come up with. I was very much a boy like Elliott (Henry Thomas), I was just very good, sweet, considerate, thoughtful… and unjaded. I loved the idea of finding a special alien that had gentle powers, and flying away on a bicycle, and eating Reese’s candy, and getting help with magic towards a first kiss. The John Williams music is triumphant, what else is it? I’m a very, very happy person when I watch “E.T.” It’s kind of an antidote to the rest of my oh-so-serious picks.
3. The Shining (1980, 143 Minutes, R) – The best horror film ever made and probably the best one there will ever be. Stanley Kubrick’s claustrophobic chiller takes place in the high altitudes of the Colorado Rockies peaking at a rough snowstorm. Inside a hotel closed during the off-season, caretaker Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) gets cabin fever while the wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd) cower nervously. Many devotees over the years have revered it for its supernatural elements, its haunted symbolism, its hypnotic camerawork that spells delirium and claustrophobia. I see something else: A parable of the world’s most loveless marriage. This is the one Stanley Kubrick film that scrambles the brain the longest. You can watch it several times over the course of a decade and find you are still working at unlocking its secrets.
4. Come and See (1985, Russia, 136 Minutes, Unrated) – I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to see it. Not for all people, it’s that devastating a war film, circa height of World War II Nazis invading and pillaging the border villages of Russia. The opening scene admittedly makes no sense, perhaps the intent is to depict confusion and desperation in the search for one gun. There will be an organized Resistance, but their lack of power is pitiless. The entire film is seen through the eyes of a 14-year old boy (Florya, played by Aleksey Kravchenko) who is not given the chance of an identity because he simply is just trying to survive. The sound design is cruel and uncompromising early on, you empathize the boy has gone temporarily deaf from the artillery noise. He tries to find a purpose, friends to stick by or join the Resistance. It is said, the survivors in this film must envy the dead. Even if Florya makes it alive the film suggests he will never have a normal life. This is an uncompromising film of horror and despair, of men and women victims attempting to elude genocide, and there is zero relief. You look at a film like this and think, my life has been good.
5. Testament (1983, 90 Minutes, PG) – The best film ever directed by a woman, Lynn Littman, and because of its’ box office failure and her unschmoozy personality in Hollywood she never made another theatrical feature, just TV stuff. On a typical sunny afternoon, an emergency broadcast flashes an announcement on television. Moments later without warning, a blinding white light fills the sky. Carol (Jane Alexander, jaw-droppingly good), the mother, grabs her children and pulls them down to the ground and asks them to cover their eyes. The power goes out. The white light recedes and neighbors gather on the street panic-stricken. The community loses contact with many other cities even within their own State. Days pass with each new one gloomier than the last. The sky gradually grows darker. Vegetation dries out and rots. The local park becomes a landfill for dead bodies to burn on a pyre. This is a film of great anguish and deep despair, but yes, it says something about human resilience. There are moments that tear me up, including a scene of a daughter asking her mother what it’s like to kiss a boy since she will never know. I suppose it’s not a major well-known masterpiece because it’s too anguished for popular acceptance.
6. Do the Right Thing (1989, 120 Minutes, R) – Spike Lee permeates hot colors throughout his race and class war social treatise, and the whole thing explodes with memorable characters. This is more than just a classic in film technique, this is a prophecy for some the most significant of all life lessons. The culmination leads to a race riot, with cops present as mediators before they become agitators too. Real life has mirrored this film significantly in recent years. It’s amazingly ridiculous how snubbed it was at the Oscars (Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor Danny Aiello were acknowledged with nominations). This continues to be a roaring, brilliant film, buoyed with street smart humor. With Aiello as the pizzeria owner, John Turturro as his son and co-operator, Spike Lee as delivery boy Mookie, Rosie Perez as the ice-melting girlfriend, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the wise elders, Giancarlo Esposito as an angry customer, Samuel L. Jackson as the disc jockey, Bill Nunn as the young man Radio Raheem struggling between the maxims of love and hate.
7. Blue Velvet (1986, 121 Minutes, R) – David Lynch’s dirty and kinky thriller, seedy and unclean. Kyle MacLachlan is squeaky clean Jeffrey Beaumont, a barely starting college student who looks into the mystery behind a severed ear which is probably the clue to a murder. He loves the good girl (Laura Dern) but is attracted to the bad girl (Isabella Rossellini), who has become a sex slave to an evil man (Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth, what a perverted weirdo!) and doesn’t run, because, there is a mystery as to why she can’t. This is the kind of film that repulses you, or one that you find powerful because it says something about immaculate Beaumont types finding something sinister and forbidden for the first time in their lives. And that idea that in beautiful towns there are strange undercurrents.
8. The Right Stuff (1983, 193 Minutes, PG) – The American myth of the NASA space program brought to life by director Philip Kaufman. Fred Ward as Lt. Col. Gus Grissom; Scott Glenn as RDML Alan Shepard; Dennis Quaid as Col. Gordon Cooper; Ed Harris as Col. John Glenn; and Sam Shepard as the man that broke the sound barrier with a X-1 rocket plane, Maj. Gen. Chuck Yeager. Breathtaking aerial shots zooming through cloudy but blue skies, also awesome depictions of breaking the atmosphere, with its swirly-radiant colors, and circling the Earth. The best drama however are the sequences depicting the concentrated try-outs to select America’s best while the Mercury program weed drop-outs from those incapable of enduring high stress. The famous jingoistic shot of the movie is of course the slow-mo group shot of the astronauts in gear walking bravely through the Kennedy space station ready to make history. Shrewd intelligence is demonstrated in the portrayed follies (and successes) of politics, public relations, and the space-race competition with the Russians.
9. Tootsie (1982, 119 Minutes, PG) – The perfect Dustin Hoffman vehicle, the perfect cross-dressing comedy. It’s simply one I have never tired of, and am always endeared by. Hoffman as out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey lands a TV soap gig by putting on a dress and make-up, becoming Dorothy Michaels. He falls in love with his soap’s co-star while pretending to be Dorothy. I’ll just say it: Jessica Lange was one of my first loves in my life. So yes, I find it very funny, and touching, when Hoffman is Dorothy Michaels and ever so delicately says things a man would say to make Lange feel loved. Then there are throwaway bits. “That is one nutty hospital,” said by Michael’s roommate Bill Murray is just hysterical comic timing. Effortlessly written and directed, you are not aware of the filmmaking technique since, at least with me, I’m laughing too hard for the twentieth time.
10. Amadeus (1984, 160 Minutes, R) – Radical bio of classical music icon Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart versus third-rate composer Salieri who envied him to a drastic fault. Part of the fun is arguing who gives the more genius performance. Tom Hulce as a simpering child with instant gratification whims as music genius Mozart? Or F. Murray Abraham as the spiteful, unforgiving Salieri who wishes his foe’s greatness be removed so he could have a spotlight in 18th century Vienna? When I was younger, I was into the nuances of Oscar winner Abraham. But now that I’m older I think Hulce is too much fun, and audaciously eccentric, and I choose him now. Geniuses like Mozart need not bend to social conventions, and in my new wisdom I see it’s all too fitting that Mozart would be a libertine and rascal with the royals. Director Milos Forman brings enormous vivacity to the symphony and opera scenes. Big-scaled epics on historical icons used to be more common than superhero movies. Here is one of the must-see essentials.
11. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, 164 Minutes, R) – Director Martin Scorsese respects the Gospels, anybody with intelligence can see that. The final third steers in a controversial new direction, for that’s what offended. If Jesus was more than a deity but a man, then he had to have both wisdom and self-doubt, both strength and fragility. Here’s the touchy part: Scorsese portrays Jesus as a coward and conflicted man before he chooses the right path. This is more compelling to us as not just viewers, but as human beings, to consider Jesus this way instead of as some kind of invincible divinity. Willem Dafoe’s final monologue as Jesus is astounding in his plea for salvation and forgiveness. That it was once so controversial as for its opponents to scream blasphemy at it seems ridiculous now. It is a watershed film, and has changed the way we look at Biblical epics.
12. Full Metal Jacket (1987, 117 Minutes, R) – Director Stanley Kubrick’s cruelest war film and his signature theme of dehumanization of man within a harsh social system is at its most apparent here. R. Lee Ermey as the master drill Sergeant Hartman who whips his recruits into obedience and conformity, won the part after Kubrick passed on Robert DeNiro. Matthew Modine and Arliss Howard, as Private Joker and Cowboy, are smarter than their peers but cave into male aggression and unit assimilation. The fantastic Vincent D’Onofrio as Private Leonard Lawrence is too damn pudgy, but instead of Leonard being kicked out of the Corp. he is left enlisted because he is an expert rifleman (this isn’t verbally brought up, it’s an assumption). The first half is tragedy, it’s also Kubrick’s intellectual triumph how much he can cover in six quick shots of montage. Over the years by critics, there has been stupid criticism that the second half of the film is weaker than the first half. It’s as if saying, it shouldn’t be there at all. Whatever. Different from other war movies, the enemy is seen at an indistinct distance. They’re targets, not people. The climactic sniper sequence is expertly staged in slow-motion and troops choreography. One scene’s revelation is that you can be thoroughly trained for combat and be top of your class and still be under the enemy’s rifle scope by one simple thoughtless mistake. How did you deal with a day’s debacle? You sing-along to the Mickey Mouse theme as a group.
13. The Falcon and the Snowman (1985, 131 Minutes, R) – One of the most intelligent screenplays (by Steven Zallian) ever written, but I bet today’s generation wouldn’t know that. One of the best performances ever by an actor and that would be Sean Penn (easily his best), but I bet today’s generation wouldn’t know that. Somehow, this 1985 John Schlesinger film has faded away and isn’t much talked about. In this factual story, the very bright Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) dropped out of school so he could work for the message-routing center for the CIA and got his hands on sensitive material. He became coerced by his hyper-drug friend Daulton Lee (Penn) to sell United States secrets to the Russians at an embassy in Mexico, neither of them liking the CIA for their dirty tricks at influencing elections in Australia. They get blackmailed to trade bigger information, and partake in spy games in which they are the fall guys. No really, Penn was not Oscar nominated.
14. House of Games (1987, 101 Minutes, R) – Ultimate con artist movie, highly-stylized by the David Mamet wordsmith dialogue (this film is his director debut too). “It’s called a confidence game,” Joe Mantegna explains, coming clean after he has failed with mark Lindsay Crouse, a psychiatrist. Then the two fall for each other, and the buttoned-up honest person becomes suckered into participating in a big set-up to sting a big-rolling businessman. Every scene, implicit to the con or not, is a brilliant head game with the audience. Money is what we chase after in this life, and Mantegnas’ team are expert charlatans. But take away the money factor, and Mamet’s film is about the power to influence people. Dr. Margaret Ford (Crouse) has written a book called “Driven: Compulsion and Obsession in Everyday Life.” After some time spent participating criminal vices, she knows her book subject far too well.
15. Out of Africa (1985, 161 Minutes, PG) – Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, she a colonial coffee plantation owner and he a travelling big-game hunter. One of the lush romantic epics, intelligently told, and watch it over a long wispy afternoon at home with a carafe of tea by you. This is Africa before war and famine, the early 1900’s during the safaris and early experimentations with airplanes. Streep, as Karen Blixen from Denmark, is married to a baron (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who couldn’t be less interested at being home with his wife. Redford, the adventurer, makes flirtatious gestures with the lonely housewife. The colonial Africans are at first feared, then revered in Karen’s life, a long life for awhile until she seizes short torrid romance. You see Sydney Pollack’s film for the grandeur, for the romantic impulses, for the geopolitical overview of times past. And for Streep’s delicately cultured performance. I don’t expect stupid people who have never travelled or had an unusually sexy moment happen in their life to understand my choice here.
16. Atlantic City (1981, 104 Minutes, R) – Gripping fiction. Burt Lancaster in perhaps the greatest old man looks back and regrets his life role. Lancaster is Lou Pascal, a small time bookie and numbers runner who used to be a gangster. Lou says he once shared a prison cell with Bugsy Siegel. Lou as habit voyeurs on a bathing beauty Sally (Susan Sarandon, showing breasts). For extra money regularly tends to a bitchin’ old hag (Kate Reid) who has him on her beck and call. To bounce back from cowardice, he stumbles into a lucky cocaine deal that returns the feeling to him of being the Big Shot he once was. For starters, Lou wiggles into a close camaraderie with Sally, his object of desire.
17. The Fly (1986, 95 Minutes, R) – The already bug-eyed and hairy Jeff Goldblum as scientist Seth Brundle, inventor of the teleport machine. His world-changing device could transport goods around the world by transferring molecules from one launching pod to a destination pod. The horror begins on a drunken night, when jealous of girlfriend Geena Davis’ night on the town, he decides to transport his own human flesh. He is unknowing that a housefly DNA now blends in with his DNA (this story also serves as a metaphor for AIDS). New DNA content begins to mutate his flesh, but on the upside he does develop superhuman gymnastic abilities. Director David Cronenberg shocks us with gore, and (SPOILER WARNING) with horrendous details of how flies intake food by regurgitating their phlegm on desired food. Cronenberg’s horror is creepy, icky, frightening, disgusting. Also terribly sad and brilliant.
18. Born on the Fourth of July (1989, 145 Minutes, R) – The unsuccessful foreign policy mistake of America was attempting to bring doctrine to the Vietnamese, except we killed a lot of them by mistake. Ron Kovic was barely in his teens when he killed women and children in Vietnam. In a shroud of guilt, he carelessly went gung ho with gunfire leaving himself bare open to get shot. He was paralyzed from the chest down for life. He was a good-looking kid, but he never had love with a woman nor had he ever had sex with a woman. Tom Cruise goes from handsome and fit Marine to drooling lip paraplegic. This is perhaps the best performance of his career. Oliver Stone catches the denial of callow youth, how impressionable young men were to raise their guns and shoot down Viet Cong as spurious conduit to peace. Later, Kovic became a peace beacon and protestor of the Vietnam War. Kovic applauded the efforts of the late John F. Kennedy and deplored subsequent U.S. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
19. The War of the Roses (1989, 116 Minutes, R) – Directed by Danny DeVito. Rich people behaving badly, giving each other night sweat. Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as self-entitled rich people Oliver and Barbara Rose play merciless divorce games inside a grand mansion. Weeks pass with them trying to live under the same roof, but the pranks get uglier and then vicious. This is a milestone black comedy, one that goes after one hilariously dark jab after another. DeVito, who also plays a divorce lawyer, goes after sharper visual inventions and acute angles than most directors ever dare. His work here has been long under-appreciated. Of all movie divorces this one is the most sublimely evil case of the couple who shouldn’t be married. Be thankful that you aren’t one of them. Or are you?
20. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, 115 Minutes, PG) – It’s easy to take Harrison Ford for granted, but Indiana Jones wouldn’t be such an endurable screen hero if it weren’t for the graces of the actor. Indiana Jones fights the shameless Nazis, all of them with the hubris that they are going to rule the world. We need to beat the s*** out of them. In many adventure scenes, Indiana does. I love a number of the chase scenes, and the rah-rah John Williams score that goes with it. I wish the dame was somebody I could fantasize about (Karen Allen, she’s just average), so I’m sorry, but I can’t help but say I was never that into her. I do want to add I am one of the few that has liked all the sequels, especially the underrated 1984 entry “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” with its roller coaster chase scene on a mine cart. Steven Spielberg with this series set the standard of the modern action movie.
Fun Movies 1980’s: “Airplane” (1980); “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980); “Superman II” (1980); “The Thing” (1982); “Risky Business” (1983); “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983); “Octopussy” (1983); “Return of the Jedi” (1983); “A Christmas Story” (1983); “Top Secret” (1984); “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” (1984); “The Terminator” (1984); “Romancing the Stone” (1984); “This is Spinal Tap” (1984); “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984); “The Neverending Story” (1984); “The Karate Kid” (1984); “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984); “Back to the Future” (1985); “Re-Animator” (1985); “The Last Dragon” (1985); “Aliens” (1986); “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986); “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986); “Ruthless People” (1986); “Moonstruck” (1987); “Radio Days” (1987); “Raising Arizona” (1987); “The Princess Bride” (1987); “Planes Trains and Automobiles” (1987); “Roxanne” (1987); “Predator” (1987); “The Naked Gun” (1988); “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988); “Big” (1988); “Who Framed Roger Rabbitt” (1988); “Midnight Run” (1988); “Parenthood” (1989); “The Little Mermaid” (1989); “Batman” (1989); “When Harry Met Sally” (1989); “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989); “Lethal Weapon 2” (1989).
BEST OF 2014
Does my taste in film get more esoteric each year or what? But at least I didn’t love the most pretentious movie of the year (see #1 worst). Many faves this year were thrillers, or dramas that played like thrillers. Some of the plots were improbable, but not impossible. I feel it is worth making that distinction since so much great art is arrogantly shrugged off for being unrealistic. If art played it safe, it would be boring. None of my choices are boring. I truly love these films, although I’ll admit there was a superior volume of films a year ago.
1. Boyhood – Wonderful. Writer-director Richard Linklater shot the film over a spread of 12 years shooting in continuity with his actors. We meet Texas kid Mason (Ellar Coltrane) at 6-years old, growing up in a broken home, with his mother (Patricia Arquette) making a number of bad life choices before making a couple good ones, and natural father (Ethan Hawke) slowly returning to his life for every other weekend visits. This is about the boy’s growth development, in essence. So audiences looking for “plot” need not bother, for this is story over plot, about a boy transcending the toxicity he encounters and maturing beyond his high school peers and envious adults. I almost don’t want to use the word toxicity, since this is a film with a beautiful essence about a child growing up intelligent and strong.
As much as I love the 1989 comedy “Parenthood” with its rich pathos, “Boyhood” has searing insights on parenting: Shielding your child from a drunk relative; worrying about your child on a sleepover with no mature supervision; concerning if your child will get over the disheveled phase; how to elevate above teasing at school; teaching not get trapped forever by a first girlfriend, there’s more out there; that education exists outside of schools and in real life; feigning certainty at all times.
Yes, “Boyhood” is two hours and forty-minutes long. It’s also so obviously the best picture of the year. The last scene is the sweetest thing in years. In case you’re not up to speed, writer-director Linklater is also respected for “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise,” “Waking Life,” “School of Rock” and “Bernie.” He has outdone himself this time.
2. Nymphomaniac (Denmark) – I’m probably one of the few people on Earth who thinks a 4-hour Danish film about a woman with an insatiable sex drive is great. What can I say? I like psychology. Most people would find it too upsetting within twenty minutes. From the director of “Breaking the Waves” and “Melancholia,” Lars von Trier’s hypersexual saga has pornographic content, but it is not senseless pornography. Joe is aged by decades (Stacy Martin, young; Charlotte Gainsbourg, woman), and she grows so accustomed in her habits to the point that she attracts sex and recklessness into her nature. Men who pass by sense she is defined by it. The entire film she is counseled by a celibate named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), her polar opposite, and her life is recounted in flashback. “Nymphomaniac” is far ahead of its time for its’ intermix of graphic sex and intellectual content, and by the bravado of its montages – with astute voiceover – that gets us into an understanding of her impulses and her constant desire to find her next big high. Von Trier’s piece is divided into separate “Vol. 1” and “Vol. 2” titles, but it’s really one individual masterpiece.
3. Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal gives the best acting performance of the decade. That’s a tall statement that I make without haste. But see the film and ask why wouldn’t it be? Look at other great anti-social performances in cinema that weren’t Oscar-nominated or appreciated in their time: Woody Harrelson in “Rampart,” Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Eric Roberts in “Star 80,” Robert DeNiro in “The King of Comedy.” Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an amateur photographer who violates boundaries of the injured and the dead, goes in with gusto to the big TV news stations and uses his intractable logic as why they should buy his freelance news footage. His monologues are spellbinding. Bloom is a sociopath, but doesn’t set out to be complicit to murder but does whatever it takes to succeed with his slimy video production news business. But he will be complicit if it means selling a prospective high rating clip for more profit. Rene Russo is stupendous as the news producer who loves jacking up the terror in news stories, and Riz Ahmed is heartrending as Lou’s pathetic assistant. The lurid nighttime activity of an infested city is captured as eerily as the 1976 landmark classic “Taxi Driver,” and deserves the same classic reputation. Dan Gilroy (screenwriter of the “Bourne” movies) made a stunning directorial debut.
4. Whiplash — Actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons push their love for performance to the max. Simmons is getting all the awards season love, but wouldn’t it be nice if they both were? There hasn’t been a music drama with such an electric pulse to it in quite a few years, and simply there’s no other jazz movie that’s this ebullient. Even if you hate jazz, you will find this film fascinating (and you’ll probably learn to like jazz a little bit). The core subject is very relevant, with Teller as a music prodigy who is given permission to join an advanced performance class, is jacked up with lots of esteem only to be berated daily by Simmons as the mad dog school instructor who hears flaws in the notes that no one else can hear. I want to really say this: This film is an example of perfect economy of storytelling. No needless scenes, no unnecessary fat on scenes, and always very alive in the moment.
5. Gone Girl – One of the best genre films of recent years, a thriller that is somehow more thrilling weeks after you see it because you’re still putting the psychological puzzle pieces together. Was one ofs the flashbacks a fabrication in its retelling because it came from a skewed point of view? Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike look like a bad mismatched cast couple at first, but that’s the point. When she goes missing, and his affectless demeanor and absent-minded gaiety is caught on camera, it makes for terrible public perception. He becomes the most hated man in America. “Girl” as a plot isn’t probable but it’s not impossible. You’re hooked by the number of doozy twists that come with the best home run blockbusters, but director David Fincher’s enigmatic little nuances elevate it to high art. The final image, for instance, isn’t very “real” but it’s the kind of quick-flash moment that makes it into your nightmares.
6. Life Itself – The Roger Ebert documentary that reveals why he was the greatest of all film critics, and one of the greatest writers of anything, period. We get the fullness of his life, as any devoted fan could hope, and the footage of him at the end afflicted with his disease which only elicited the most impassioned writing of his life. The world without Ebert is a difficult one. We now have a hopeless critic culture that metaphorically gives the hideously pretentious “Birdman” thumbs way up while great trash like “Need for Speed” is given thumbs way down. Many of today’s critics are descendants of Ebert, but they still don’t get it. If you want to wholly understand movies then get in touch with vintage Ebert now. This doc also uncovers the layers of Ebert’s longtime television co-host Gene Siskel.
7. Foxcatcher – You’re being set-up for an inspiration sports fable, you think, one that’s unaffected and matter-of-fact. You keep waiting for the emotions to warm, and between billionaire John DuPont (Steve Carell) and Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) as the 1984 Olympic wrestler that he agrees to coach for the 1988 Olympics, the warmth is briefly there. I have no idea of whom director Bennett Miller’s connections are, but he somehow got to shoot the film on somebody’s seemingly $100 million estate. Mark is eating dollar hamburgers before he’s plucked by DuPont, is empowered by an impromptu friendship and by the luxurious surroundings, and then spirits are crushed. Carell, Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Mark’s paunchy married brother and competitor wrestler who unwisely gets too much in-between the other two, all do the finest dramatic work of their careers in what is likely the greatest American tragedy of the cinema since 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
8. American Sniper — No politics except Chris Kyle’s politics, he would be the Navy SEAL who succeeded more lethal kills in U.S. Military History. “I am willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took,” he says of his 160 kills. Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, with a hefty bale of Texas personality, a plenty dosage of charm and personality. The bravado of Clint Eastwood’s direction is helping us realize how dangerous inner city Iraq is. I believe that it’s possible Kyle made a few more mistakes than the film lets on, but I’m more than persuaded that he saved countless soldiers lives from his own side. “Sniper” is a portrait of a man, so all that pro-war stuff and how this film serves as propaganda can be thrown out the window for all I’m concerned. I perceived his valor and found I learned something about patriotism. There are PTSD issues discussed, and it’s done well, but if you really want a film on that subject see the 2006 documentary “The Ground Truth.” But overall, yes, this is an intelligent and always interesting film that is essential to Eastwood’s film canon.
9. Begin Again – Has no cultural “importance” whatsoever, but this music comedy-drama (with good music!) is one of those feel-great movies you just want to beg everybody you know to go see. This is coming from somebody who hates films about the music industry because they’re usually filled with egotistical biz people. Star turns feature Mark Ruffalo as a washed-up exec and Keira Knightley as a self-doubting songwriter who together come up with an original idea to record an album without using a recording studio. Adam Levine, in his first acting role, is the conflict or antagonist or whatever you want to call it, but he’s really good in the part as the ex-boyfriend who becomes a star. John Carney of “Once” is the writer-director, and the love story here is to get two jaded souls to rekindle their love for music.
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel – The first shots of a gondola transport to the opulently colorful hotel of the title are magically beautiful, and the people in it are charming too, in what is to date my favorite Wes Anderson film. Ralph Fiennes is splendid as the finicky concierge who battles for the right of one piece of art from his deceased lover’s collection (Tilda Swinton as 84-year old Madame D.), with the help of Tony Revolori he snatches the painting following the will and testament reading. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe are the nasty surviving sons of the estate that want all of their mother’s heirlooms for themselves, they’re from Anderson’s box of caricatures. But Anderson gives them, and everybody else in the large ensemble cast, at least something amusing to do. Visual enchantment nearly all the way.
Honorable Mentions: Selma; Interstellar; The Imitation Game; Edge of Tomorrow; 22 Jump Street; Joe; Fury; Lucy; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Young & Beautiful (France).
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN TRIBUTE
I don’t think any actor’s death has upset me more than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. It bothers me on so many levels that he died at age 46. He should have had every resource imaginable to rebound to permanent sobriety, but experts called it a relapse bender into his heroin addiction. After Roger Ebert’s death, I felt a sudden cognition, however irrational, that there’s a lack of interesting people in this world (that I follow closely). And then Hoffman had to die and leave me feeling empty as well.
On a nerd level, he wasn’t Oscar nominated for several movies that were among his best work. This first one that comes to mind was “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007), which to me was one of the five best performances of the decade. A couple of hours after I learned of his death on Sunday, February 2, I replayed that film in my head. Then I had recall – his character was a hardcore, big spending heroin addict. There’s a scene where he has paid for a room at a peddler’s condo, and I couldn’t help thinking the first time I saw it, Hoffman seems to understand this scene better than any other actor would. He knows the process, the procedure, the sensation, the decadent pleasure, the numbing of shooting up. Now I think that scene is sadder than ever.
I liked him movie after movie; I considered him a character actor. I think it was only halfway through the 2000’s that it dawned on me that he was one of the great actors, period. Long before that, the initial impressions he made on me were “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Happiness” (1998), the former a 70’s porn saga and the latter a dark portrait of peopleincapable of being happy, and I surmised – this actor is a straight-jacketed dweeb that’s going to have a fruitful career playing losers. And be a typecast for it. Call me a movie fanatic, but I remember how I actually bobbed off my seat with befuddlement when I saw him in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999, pic right). There was no way this dweeb could play a guy this cocky, ostentatious and moneyed. And do it so well. His range and versatility had struck me in that moment.
Movie after movie he was mesmerizing. In commercial fare, he could raise the bar with the entertainment value and the substance, in what would have been way too standard with another actor. First example, “Mission: Impossible III” (2006), where he played a grandiloquent snob of a villain. Second example, “Along Came Polly” (2004), which is a guilty pleasure for me. Back up a second. Would I even use a big word like “grandiloquent” to compliment another actor? Then there were the esoteric art films. I mentioned “Happiness” already, but how about “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) which is admittedly hard to sit through (and hard to analyze) but is fascinating and even engaging because of his wired-in commitment and gosh damn this cliché – the humanity he brought to the part.
I wanted to conclude this article with listing his five best performances. Then I looked at his oeuvre and realized there are too many great ones to choose from, and difficult to narrow to five. (Here I paused.) I have looked it over and will choose an essential five. And I will list some additional ones in brief as an addendum.
1. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead(2007) – What a plum role for him since the film is an all-in-all modern tragedy. Desperate for money, Hoffman plots with his brother Ethan Hawke to rob his parents’ jewelry store because they know they have insurance. Hoffman is a persuasive, rapacious hound in the first place to convince his brother to team with him. An accident takes place during the caper unraveling into wrath between family members. What dramatizes is the downward spiral self-destruction and viperous backstabbing on his family. Yet Hoffman’s schemer has betrayed himself, and he knows it, and the sadness is powerful.
2. The Master (2012) – As Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman is a powerful and bombast figure with a start-up religion in the post-war 1950’s. Carefully modulated speech, rotund command of the room, he has what it takes to sway disciples to join. He lets everybody know that “We sometimes forget laughter is important,” but the more dubious aspects of his rhetoric is hogwash and yet frighteningly influential. I declared Matthew McConaughey the best supporting actor of the year in “Magic Mike,” but let’s face it, I’ve seen “Magic Mike” only once. A mistake, since I’ve watched “The Master” a countless number of times since then. I’ve been mesmerized by the film endlessly, and mesmerized by Hoffman, too. He was nominated for this.
3. Owning Mahowny (2003) – The true story of a Canadian assistant bank manager who gambled millions of other peoples’ money at an Atlantic City casino. It’s said that his character only wins so he has more money to lose. He is a fussbudget when it comes to the ordinary purchases in life, he has a girlfriend he ignores, and is tunnel-visioned to gamble. With his performance, he avoids eye contact with most people, which I think he does to hide the shame. He mildly perks up when is on a winning streak, implosive when he loses. Another role where he was not nominated.
4. Capote (2005) – This was Hoffman’s Oscar win for Best Actor. As good as the film was, I didn’t think it was as fascinating as the actual real-life case dramatized in the terrific 1967 film “In Cold Blood.” What has stuck with me through the years is Hoffman’s ability to take a fairy-voiced dweeb and yet convince me still that Truman Capote could command a room. Once again, he demonstrated intellect and power, he injected that kind of intrigue and interest. But the fact that he did that with a character who was initially annoying and fey, is really quite remarkable.
5. Magnolia (1999) – His greatness was overlooked (even by me) in its first release. That had something to do with a large ensemble cast – part of interlocking stories that crossed misguided souls – all of them doing some of the best work of their careers. The best one was obvious, Tom Cruise as a misogynistic guru who turns out to have a wounded past. But then you watched it again, and Hoffman’s caregiver was gracious, determined, painstakingly sympathetic, and charitable. Exactly the kind of virtues that get overlooked by Academy voters (and first-time viewers). Thus, he was not nominated.
Another five great performances were “Boogie Nights” (1997) as the boom-mike operator loser with an unparalleled affection for the paramount stud Dirk Diggler; “Happiness” (1998) as an introvert pervert who makes obscene phone calls, and yet had depth and inner goodness he desperately tries to connect with; “Almost Famous” (2000) as the legendary rock journalist with an untouchable clout; “25th Hour” (2002) as a friend to Edward Norton’s feckless criminal who gets drunk while he tries to bring solace to him on his last night before going to prison; “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007) as a hard-drinking blowhard CIA man who assisted a congressman in his campaign to free Afghanistan. I also don’t want to slight his first major movie role as an upper crust college preppie who gets a schoolmate in trouble in “Scent of a Woman” (1992), another one to check out.
This was difficult to write. I want to emphasize that. It took me two days to get to it, because I was still processing. He will be missed, and I can’t help but say, he was irreplaceable.
BEST FILMS OF THE 1990’s
I don’t believe an entire decade can be summed up with ten films. But with twenty films it covers the broader range! And after twenty, I wanted to mention twenty-five! These core films of the 1990’s do say something about the culture, the information breakthroughs, and represent the artistic pinnacles.
1. GoodFellas (1990) – Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci in the untouchable Martin Scorsese film that immortalized them. We are taught by grade one that murder, robbery, loan sharking and all that other mayhem stuff is a sin. We know that these wiseguys are a morally corrupt outfit and yet it so appealing and tantalizing that you can’t help but fantasize being a part of it. “The Godfather” is a classic handsome Greek tragedy of a film, but have you ever fantasized about being one of the Corleones? The cars, the booze, the nightclubs, the all-night card playing, the stacks of money, the mistresses, the fur coats, the ball-busting… what a glorious time. The problem is the 1950’s and ’60’s didn’t last forever, for the coolness of gangster life was trashed by 80′s drug-dealing. If you have never seen a Scorsese film, which should be a constitutional duty in this lifetime, then start here. Arrive at the scene where the camera tours through a red-lamp nightclub via the backdoors, then through the kitchen, and then onto its service floor so Liotta and Lorraine Bracco get seated at their exclusive table, and you will begin to understand why Scorsese is such a huge deal.
2. Schindler’s List (1993) – When it’s over, it is emotionally overwhelming in the most positive respect. Perhaps you have never considered yourself one that could handle a Holocaust film but deep down you want to see just one so you get the Holocaust in one swing. “List” did more than transform public perception of the horrors of the Holocaust – it was the first big budget film to depict bloody horrors, the mass genocide, and the few lucky to get out – it had transformed director Steven Spielberg as well who found his spiritual calling when he created the Shoah Visual History Foundation after the film was released. Liam Neeson is the enterprising businessman who came to Nazi-occupied Poland to exploit Jews as free labor but then became a humanitarian when he witnessed genocide in Krakow. Ralph Fiennes is the Nazi prison camp commandant Amon Goeth, unblinking in his evil and alliance to National Socialism. Ben Kingsley is Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant and Schindler’s right-hand man. Somehow we feel like we meet the 1,100 people too that were saved. Artistically, the black & white is not only essential, it is a definitive example what the best high contrast lighting cinematography can do.
3. Pulp Fiction (1994) – Bloody crime story gone black comedy. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s first wacky dialogue together – you must applaud aloud. Travolta and Uma Thurman’s dance scene, stand up and cheer. The adrenaline needle, shriek loud. You’re one of the luckiest people ever if you saw this in full packed house the weekend it opened. If you haven’t seen it yet, it won’t compare, but at least get a pack of people over to watch it with you as a midnight party movie. Christopher Walken has a bravura gonzo monologue. Bruce Willis is a boxer who refuses to fold so he goes on the run. Amanda Plummer and Eric Roth are stick-up robbers at a restaurant. Ving Rhames is the smoothest velvet-tongued mob boss you’ve ever heard, he later gets a gag ball in his mouth. Oh, the dungeon and samurai sword scene, what a freak out. All part of nonlinear, multi-part plot with interlocking stories that double over themselves sometimes. Quentin Tarantino’s definitive film is also full of mean-streets-goes-loony-toons dialogue that made it as famous as any screenplay ever written, but it is Harvey Keitel as Mr. Wolf who gets the wickedest line. None of these actors would ever seem as iconic outside of this film ever again (except Jackson, who continues to push the envelope). In Tarantino-land, even the silences are riveting.
4. Dark City (1998) – The poster looked like “Hellraiser” goes to Mars, not looking like one of the best movies ever made which is what it is. Without a standard advertising gimmick (we’re better off without ads telling us everything anyway), this got brushed under the rug and other subsequent sci-fi’s like “The Matrix” became more famous. But this really is the most staggering, most visually awesome and story-rich sci-fi film of the last forty years. Imagine that – nobody has done better in this many years! Not since “2001,” I would say. Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt are the stars (okay not as famous as Keanu, get over it). Rufus is an amnesiac trying to figure out who he is after he blacked out. The setting is an abstract architectural dreamscape – an amalgam of the ’30’s, ’40’s, comic books of the antique yesteryears. The feeling is a noir universe of awesome converting objects and shape-shifting images. Theme: The question of whether human memory is part of the human soul? Whoa, Keanu would say. Weird and hella’ fun.
5. The Age of Innocence (1993) – Crafted like an origami opera. Aristocratic 1870’s New York is brought elegantly to life by Martin Scorsese, his classiest picture embellished with fur coats, horse carriages, yellow red and purple rose petals, opera houses and opulent ballrooms. Daniel Day-Lewis is the proper but evolving thinking Newland Archer, Michelle Pfieffer is the dreamy and audacious woman, Winona Ryder as the shallow but proper virgin that Day-Lewis is supposed to marry. The film occupies a time and place, and a feeling of blueblood snobbery unlike any other – the snipes made between people leave cruel marks. Edith Wharton’s people lived in a time of gorgeousness, wall to wall fanciness. But the people, oh so stifled in their uptight manners. In a way, lovers Day-Lewis and Pfieffer are renegades, attempting to get away with paltry transgressions that wouldn’t matter a hundred years later. There were no movies in 1870, but Scorsese’s film can serve as its time capsule.
6. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – In the early years I considered Tim Robbins, as the wrongly convicted murderer sentenced to life, to be the best performance. But as the years draw on and appreciation richens, Morgan Freeman delivers a performance of grace embodiment unsurpassed. Living with grace inside prison walls has really been the enduring theme of the Frank Darabont film (of a Stephen King novella). Long-lasting patience is another theme, and durable friendship is yet another. Iconic moments abound. Robbins, standing with open arms in the rain, as the camera ascends vertically, triumphantly, is one of cinema’s great images. I could rank this film higher but what is perhaps a greater shot was cut short by thirty seconds when before its original theatrical release, a test audience mistakenly thought it was over and began walking out too early: the camera swoops over blue Pacific waters of Mexico. I have waited nearly 20 years for Darabont to restore that shot in a new DVD edition but it has yet to come.
7. Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – One reason we choose to watch movies is to get a taste of a life that isn’t ours, whether it is a good life or lowly one. Nicolas Cage drives from Los Angeles to Vegas to blow it all and drink himself to death. A horrible trajectory, yet the film has a swaying, dizzying nothing-really-matters humor. Elizabeth Shue is the prostitute with a heart of gold but the grittiness, and skankiness, of the character remains true. Cage and Shue make an unlikely, defunct pair, but something glows. To love this film anyway is to learn that you have the capacity to love movies about losers. The first 22 minutes alone is a self-contained masterpiece with Cage in freefall, and the film would still be an art film masterpiece if it were just that. Director Mike Figgis chose Super 16mm, and with light cameras he had an impromptu freedom. In addition to writing and directing, Figgis wrote and composed the jazz score, and Sting contributed to the soundtrack, too.
8. Crumb (1995) – I would never want to have lunch with Robert Crumb, I just don’t think we would get along. His geekiness is like smoldering cheese, and his brother Charles is as gross as charred flies on a wall. But I do think Terry Zwigoff made the best documentary feature ever made, about controversial supergeek who become a phenomenon in the comic book world. Even an unsuspected anti-fan like me eventually becomes awestruck by Robert’s work which is paneled within the film. Robert was reviled by some critics and editors who found that his promising early talent evolved into pornography (hence the controversy), although his satirical mind runs deep. “A Short History of America” is a comic strip of genius – it’s his cleanest work that stands out. As for Charles, well, he’s a casualty of what happens when you don’t put your dreams to pen and paper.
9. Fargo (1996) – The Coen Brothers seriocomic snow-coated ransom plot has mirth and malice, but more than that, it is populated with characters like Marge Gunderson, a pregnant police chief investigating a multiple homicide. Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar, doesn’t even make an appearance in the film until the half-hour mark. The story’s slimeball is really a schmuck: Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who meets two second-rate skuzz-buckets (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to do his dirty work. The absurd plan is for Jerry to have his wife kidnapped by them so he can snatch most of the ransom paid by his wife’s father (Harv Presnell), a rich tightwad. Everything goes down in a series of deadpan misfires. The upper Midwest often gets shafted in the movies, but the Coen’s deliver the vernacular and every other touch with gumption.
10. Malcolm X (1992) – Awesome and full of biography, full of geographical scope. Denzel Washington spans the historical figure from his hustler days in postwar Boston and Harlem, then through his prison conversion, his rise to preacher and then leader of the Black Muslim movement. The fireball orations have an unparalleled verbal command and intensity – it is a great film just to listen to his intelligence. The real coup of Spike Lee’s mastery is certain in the final hour of his three-hour and twenty minute epic: Malcolm’s philosophical conversion during his pilgrimage to Mecca where he changed his tune from segregation to embrace integration. And then, upon his return home, and following the inevitable assassination that would in return immortalize him, Lee documents the impact of his teachings across the contemporary globe with images of unity today. Washington’s performance is one of the greatest put on film – stirring, rousing and charismatic, modulating his rage to ultimately put fervor to good purpose.
11. Red (1994, France) – The “Red, White, Blue” series by Krzystof Kieslowski is a tribute to the tri-colors of the French flag (the colors stand for fraternity, equality, liberty). All three are worth watching but this final chapter in the trilogy is the true masterpiece. “Red” explores fraternity in an unlikely way between a fashion runway model (Irene Jacob) and an old retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends long addictive hours spying on his neighbors via phone wiretap. She tells him how wrong he is in his actions, and, in an unspoken way, that she will resume their friendship if he stops spying. He is in love with her, but recognizes there is a 40-year age difference that separates them. He wonders had they been of the same age, grown up together in the same space and time, would she have been the perfect soul mate for him? Co-existing somewhere in the distance, in a parallel story, is a young man (Jean-Pierre Lorit) in law school with a bright future and an accomplished girlfriend. He is a passionate but moody young man whom we learn comprises the same characteristics of the judge – by similarities, will he grow into a brittle old man likewise or sidestep into a happier future? Everything leads to a fateful conclusion that ponders who in this world we are meant to meet, whom we are not, and what circumstances dictate the rest of our futures. Notably, throughout the series the color motifs are sharply utilized, but the cinematography has never been as perfect as it is here. This is a film of endless contemplation.
12. Safe (1995) – Disturbing, and a performance by Julianne Moore that I regard as one of the ten best ever put on film. Todd Haynes’ craftsmanship is up there with Welles and Kubrick with a complimenting trancelike Lynch quality. But be warned: this is oblique storytelling that is misleading about what it appears to be about. And for some people, it is too slow, while for others the anxiety and foreboding is enthralling. Moore plays an affluent but spiritually blank woman who suddenly has severe allergic reactions to her environment. Her solution is to abandon her posh Southern California lifestyle to join a New Age retreat in New Mexico, preserved away from city pollutants and toxins. What’s left is a cipher bereft of control. When Moore’s finds sanctuary she is actually giving up the things in life that are worth living for. Her big climactic monologue is dithering, and that lack of adult cognitive awareness is what makes her performance devastating.
13. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Terrifying and immersed into depraved psychosis. FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) consults the incarcerated serial killer Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins) to catch on-the-loose serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine, a great underrated performance). The sexual profiling of the killer as well as the clinical matter of fact dissection of the victims, builds up squirmy greatness. The camera shots of Clarice and Hannibal are head-on, and we gather that Hannibal will only cooperate in assisting the case if he can get inside Clarice’s attractive little head. Before this film, all serial killers were publicly perceived as whackjobs (probably drooling at the mouth, sputter nonsensical). Serial killers, like the ones here, are still whackjobs but they are also startlingly articulate, deceptive, scheming, and demoralized with a specific trophy-minded purpose.
14. Heat (1995) – The Los Angeles set crime saga that pairs Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino as opponents (yet united by their consummate honor for what they choose to do), is the greatest of all cops and robbers movies. The range of cast – and how they fit into the vast story canvas – is extraordinary, and there must be twelve unforgettable characters (Val Kilmer, Natalie Portman, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Jon Voight among them). The cataclysmic street battle at the two hour mark, which begins as organized tag team shooting and then turns into a bloodbath royale, is among the two or three best shootouts ever. Inundated criticism suggested that Pacino’s shouting was over-the-top, but it’s really one of his best performances. When he’s shouting, he’s really acting out his daily addiction to rage and in being the showboat cop in his division. DeNiro is an emotionless humanoid but only because his motto is “pros have to be able to walk away from everything in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” The end result is a street smart blast.
15. Map of the Human Heart (1993) – Spans four decades and spreads three continents, Avik is an Eskimo in the 1930’s who follows his childhood love Albertine around the world (Jason Scott Lee and Anne Parillaud play them as adults). First love begins at a Canadian orphanage, but she is separated from him, and grows up among the noble class. As a man, he joins the Royal Canadian Air Force, participating in the firebombing of Dresden (he vows to miss his targets to avoid causing human casualties), so he can travel to her part of the world. “Human Heart” features my favorite sex scene, not because it is explicitly erotic but because it is visually evocative and unabashedly romantic, occurring after the lovers have waited well over ten years for the right time to embrace. Director Vincent Ward (“What Dreams May Come”) seems to be working from the subconscious realm – his imagery is impressionistic, conjuring dreaminess and yearning. No clunky gone-with-the-wind stuff, these are characters who make every minute of their life matter. I could have picked “The Piano,” but over the years, I love “Human Heart” way more. It’s time someone at least considers this a candidate for most romantic film ever made.
16. JFK (1991) – Blending in different kinds of film stock, arrays of lighting arrangements, and fusions of color and black & white, Oliver Stone employs hallucinatory visual styles, but really he’s expanding our minds in the process. The documentary form was influenced, too: Can you imagine “No End in Sight,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Why We Fight,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” and “The Corporation” existing without Stone’s influential hand? Some have never seen it because they are offended by hearsay, that facts were manipulated. The truth is this film is always upfront, about what is and what is not speculative, through the eyes of District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). Garrison put CIA agent Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) on trial because there was enough evidence that he was complicit to the assassination of our 35th president. Often the central message has been misinterpreted, that Stone’s work is a brainwashing conspiracy theory. The message is that government information to the citizen is parceled out through slanted media information, and in some way we’re always going to be left a little in the dark because we’re not asking the right questions.
17. The Fugitive (1993) – Harrison Ford on the run for his life after being wrongly accused for murdering his wife. The built-in agony: What husband would want to murder beautiful Sela Ward? Ford, the former vascular surgeon, returns home to Chicago to find the clues that will clear his name. On his trail is the gruff Tommy Lee Jones as a Deputy U.S. Marshall, and before you know it, you are actually rooting for both the innocent man and the pursuer. The cunning chase sequences are craftier than most action pictures due to those unbroken, gliding tracking shots engineered by director Andrew Davis (he also made Steven Seagal’s best film “Under Siege”). Ford, with his physical deftness, makes us feel what he’s feeling while the world closes in on him. Jones whips up a character who you admire strongly for his tenacious professional pledge.
18. eXistenZ (1999) – Released just weeks after “The Matrix.” David Cronenberg has been justly acclaimed for years now, but how is it that his greatest film – one of the great mindbenders of our time – been seen by far less viewership? Working as a sci-fi cautionary tale worthy of the best Philip K. Dick literature, Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh are partners lost in a virtual reality game that engages in violence, intrigue and identity crisis. But Cronenberg’s interest is really about the grotesque human desire to desecrate our flesh in order to obtain mind-blowing highs, with players whom willingly use a techno bioport to plug into their spines. You will be grossed out some.
19. Magnolia (1999) – Emotionally draining but ultimately exhilarating Paul Thomas Anderson symphony film. I knew it was a great when I sleepless one night at 4 a.m., I had turned on cable and found it for an intended minute (I had already seen it three times), and relinquished myself to watch it again, from beginning to end, as if it held answers to my life. We as people are all connected by something, and maybe we would learn something if we all communicated better with each other. Anderson’s interlinks nine Los Angeles people en route to personal destruction before the skies rain down a divine intervention that brings down the walls of shame. Among them are Tom Cruise as a seduce and destroyer, Philip Baker Hall as a game show host diagnosed with cancer, Melora Walters as his hermit-druggie daughter, Jason Robards as a dying rich S.O.B., and Julianne Moore as his trophy wife. Somehow, all of this comes out exultant in terms of filmmaking and message. As a viewer, you have to posit the idea that sometimes you have to get through all the piss and shit, transcend above it, before you get to the good stuff.
20. The Truman Show (1998) – On the air unaware. Jim Carrey, as Truman Burbank, is at once goofy, awkward and displaced plucked inside the world’s largest observation bubble and broadcast to the world. Cameras are everywhere to capture everything, some of them small as peanuts. His supplanted wife (Laura Linney) is insincere and two-faced, the real woman of his dreams (Natascha McElhone) is off in a paradise called Fiji. Or just outside the Burbank studio dome. The most plausible part of the concept is that the artificial Seahaven where Truman resides is actually cleaner and cozier than the world we live in, and so it is not impossible to envy him. But the human experience is a quest for truth, and we cheer Truman on to get enough courageous mojo to break the borders.
Fun Movies 1990’s: “Joe versus the Volcano” (1990); “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” (1990); “Cape Fear” (1991); “Dead Again” (1991); “Defending Your Life” (1991); “L.A. Story” (1991); “The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear” (1991); “Under Siege” (1992); “My Cousin Vinny” (1992); “Groundhog Day” (1993); “Carlito’s Way” (1993); “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994); “It Could Happen To You” (1994); “Dumb & Dumber” (1994); “Toy Story” (1995); “Kingpin” (1996); “Flirting with Disaster” (1996); “Mission: Impossible” (1996); “The Game” (1997); “Boogie Nights” (1997); “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion” (1997); “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997); “The Big Lebowski” (1998); ”Babe: Pig in the City” (1998); “There’s Something About Mary” (1998); “The Sixth Sense” (1999); “The Matrix” (1999); “Run Lola Run” (1999, Germany); “Office Space” (1999); “Mumford” (1999).
MY FAVORITE SCARY MOVIES
List of horror films I could watch any Halloween. No, you will not find “Friday the 13th” or “Nightmare on Elm Street” on this list. I’m too much of an art film guy. Horror art film guy.
1. The Shining (1980, 143 Minutes, R) – The best horror film ever made and probably the best one there will ever be. Many devotees over the years have revered it for its supernatural elements, its haunted symbolism, its hypnotic camerawork that spells delirium and claustrophobia. I see something else: A parable of the world’s most loveless marriage. This Stanley Kubrick film scrambles the brain the longest. You can watch it several times over the course of a decade and find you are still working at unlocking its secrets.
2. The Exorcist (1973, 121 Minutes, R) – The original blueprint for half of the horror movies cranked out of Hollywood in contemporary times. Its’ power is primal, however, thanks to the pulsating and pungent directing of William Friedkin (“The French Connection,” “Bug”). Friedkin lets the early scenes live and breathe in a real environment, slowly letting manifestations of the devil rise to presence. Friedkin gradually unleashes feverish visual techniques and sputtering soundtrack devices. The head-spinning last section, a blow out between good and evil, is a thunderous battle of spiritual wills.
3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991, 118 Minutes, R) – Terrifying and immersed into depraved psychosis. FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) consults the incarcerated serial killer Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins) to catch on-the-loose serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). The sexual profiling of the killer as well as the clinical matter of fact dissection of the victims, gets under your skin. Even though director Jonathan Demme is working with a straight-forward narrative, he summons up great hypnotic power.
4. The Fly (1986, 95 Minutes, R) – David Cronenberg’s emotionally supple love story (Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis) intermixed with grossness. Goldblum, in the one performance that should have got him an Oscar nomination, is a brilliant scientist who creates a transporting matter device. His DNA gets spliced up with a housefly, and the results are nauseating. And mesmerizing.
5. The Cell (2000, 107 Minutes, R) – The heartstopping race against the clock thriller, and even though it has fantasy elements, it is as effectively disturbing as anything else. Jennifer Lopez plunges into the mind of serial killer Vincent D’Onofrio in search of the whereabouts of a victim in captivity. Inside his mind is a Salvador Dali-esque panorama of diseased imagination. Director Tarsem Singh also made the interesting 2006 extravaganza “The Fall.”
6. The Thing (1982, 108 Minutes, R) – A cold and frightening horror movie, this John Carpenter film is set in Antarctica. The unclassifiable monster can mimic humans and animals and insects, and when it is inevitably cornered, it is seen morphing from one imitating organism to another before our eyes. In other words, it’s impossible to really corner it. Kurt Russell is the main hero, but this is really an existential story with no outs.
7. Audition (1999, Japan, 115 Minutes, Unrated but Adults Only) – Advanced cineasts only. For me, this is the only film to truly give me nightmares in my adult life and they lasted for months. You think for a few moments that this is yet another nasty horror of female victimization, but that is anything but the truth. This is really a slow build to the final mind-boggling, and ultra-disturbing twenty minutes. I hate every other Takashi Miike film, but this one is too psychologically fascinating for me.
8. Rosemary’s Baby (1968, 136 Minutes, R) – Chilling, no matter how many times you see this Roman Polanski spooker. The conspiracy is against Mia Farrow and her womb. Her actor husband John Cassavetes is atrociously selfish, trading love for success. The husband makes friends with the nosiest of elderly neighbors (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, who snatched an Oscar), who only seem harmless but turn out to meddle with the fate of this couple. The dream sequence is hauntingly surreal and bonafide satanic.
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, 117 Minutes, PG) – Not as terrifying or as gooey as “The Fly,” but it’s still a supreme creature feature. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams are San Francisco Health Inspectors that catch on that pod people from another planet are replicating and replacing human beings. They get you in your sleep! This story has been told four times, and I recommend 1994’s very underrated Abel Ferrara entry “Body Snatchers,” taking place on an army base.
10. Jacob’s Ladder (1990, 116 Minutes, R) – Bad dreams. Very bad dreams. Or they are hallucinations. Tim Robbins gets back from Vietnam and after a few years he finds it very difficult to cope. Something happened in Vietnam, something like Agent Orange. But worse. “Ladder” has motifs of whirling heads and faceless creatures, and other hellish elements vaguely seen.
11. Insidious (2011, 103 Minutes, PG-13) – Hair-raising trips to the other side. 1982’s “Poltergeist” inspired this, but this is way scarier. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as parents who try to protect their child from phantoms that have confined the boy’s soul, with further plans to overtake his human body. There is great visual imagination here.
12. The Mist (2007, 127 Minutes, R) – Monster bugs attack residents of a small town, hording outside a supermarket. The bigger the bugs get, the more skin-crawling it works on you. I guess there is something here with me and giant bugs, right? Writer-director Frank Darabont actually tried to get this made back in the early 1990’s, before “The Shawshank Redemption” if you can believe it. “Shawshank” is a masterpiece, but this is a damn fun howler.
13. REC (2007, Spain, 78 Minutes, R) – Bad fever. Residents of an apartment complex are trapped while a virus turns them into flesh-eating cannibals – all of this captured in found footage by a feisty female news reporter. I saw the 2008 American remake “Quarantine” first (it’s by the same director), and so while I was watching “REC” I considered them for a long time about equal. I give “REC” the edge, however, because the female reporter is hotter, and the ending is spine-tingling for a longer stretch.
14. Arachnophobia (1990, 103 Minutes, PG-13) – The one title on this list that’s more appropriate for pre-teens (the predatory bugs in the ground movie “Tremors” from the same year is another youth-appropriate horror). This one is all about spiders from South America, and kind doctor Jeff Daniels trying to save his square family from these nasty little crawlers. I hate it when spiders try to get you on the toilet.
15. Re-Animator (1985, 86 Minutes, R) – Slimy and disgusting, as well as hysterically funny. A scientist revives corpses to become the walking dead. We get a talking head, deadly-threshing intestines, teeth-gnashing by lots of mauling living dead, and lots of boob shots of a B-actress. Jeffrey Combs is mad Dr. Herbert West; Barbara Crampton is the screaming babe with lots of boobage. This flick is so outrageous, you will be s#*%ing bricks. I only recently discovered Stuart Gordon’s 1986 horror follow-up “From Beyond,” with much bloody body obliteration, that’s nearly as fun.
Additional horror picks that are worth seeing at least once, if never a second time. If you can stomach them: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), “Creepshow” (1982), “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” (1987), “Near Dark” (1987), “Cube” (1997), “May” (2002), “Paranormal Activity” (2009).
BEST OF 2013
1. Gravity – Wonderful, it transports us into an experience that virtually all of us will never get to experience, one that is scary yet beautiful and sensory. Sandra Bullock is a shuddery scientist on her first trip to space, George Clooney is a veteran NASA man with a humorous wisdom to counter disaster. The breathless on-going thrill of the film is the endless things-go-wrong obstacles that occur, and watching how two astronauts would really do to overcome them, all the while surviving is based on slender threads of chance. To analyze the episodes however would be to sidestep the entire purpose of Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece: To discover something new and awe-inspiring in your entire visual-memory repertoire. “Gravity” is as astounding as the great physical travels of your entire life.
2. The World’s End – The world needs laughter. This high energy British bar-crawl drinking comedy is, by miraculous coincidence, intoxicatingly funny. Just see it. I know I’m going to see it about 25 more times within the next century, and if this world ever does see an apocalypse, this might be a movie I will be thinking about as it happens as a laughing coping mechanism. Simon Pegg is in 12-steps Alcoholics Anonymous, but that doesn’t stop him from rounding up friends Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine and Rosamund Pike for a return to sleepy Newton Haven which turns out to be less sleepy than a conspiratorial breeding ground. The idiot-drunk humor is cunningly, uproariously brilliant even when it’s slurred. Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) directed with jocular let’s-just-do-it impulsiveness, Pegg and Wright co-wrote the funny-as-hell script.
3. The Hunt (Denmark) – The foreign film of the year, the tragedy of the year, the film that will likely be cited years from now when a similar story will likely actually happen somewhere and sometime in America. Mads Mikkelsen (in the best male performance of the year) is wrongly accused of the last thing besides murder a man wants to be accused of, that of sexual abuse of a 6-year old girl, who has mistaken images of internet pornography she glimpsed at as something that has happened to her. Mikkelsen becomes the victim of small town mass hysteria, and chooses resilient dignity in public appearance as a way to counter the town’s indicters. He responds to everything with not self-pity, but intelligence, even though the sexual predatory stigma will be less temporary than permanent.
4. Blue Jasmine – As a trophy wife who loses her mogul husband, and all the money she ever had, Cate Blanchett gives the performance of a lifetime. Really, this is one of the ten best performances by an actress I’ve ever seen. And if she doesn’t win votes in awards season, then it means voters didn’t bother to see the film or they know nothing about film, art, life, psychology, social disparity or anything that means a damn. Woody Allen deserves rounds of accolades, too, especially in noticing him challenge himself to create what is a powerful, outside-the-box film, about the thin line between normal and aberrant behavior in a bipolar protagonist. Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins were other impressive key performers as well.
5. 12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, resiliently good) endures day to day by adopting detachment as a survivalist strategy. All the while, though, we are aware that Solomon is a free man when it comes to his intellectual depths. Michael Fassbender is his most merciless slave owner, debased in ways that beguiles us – he has chosen an entire life to be angry and cruel? Fassbender, while married to an equally cruel wife, takes a slave girl as a sexual companion (Lupita Nyong’o, her character tragically indiscernible), which isn’t regarded as anything for him to cherish either. What’s become terribly underrated however is the scenes between Ejiofor and Brad Pitt, who arrives late as an intelligent Canadian with distinctive political values. This scene has more power than the final ones of “12 Years,” which denies us Solomon’s vivid return voyage to where he began at the start. Steve McQueen, who is one of few filmmakers who should be cited as a true artist nonetheless, has directed two previous noteworthy films as well (“Hunger,” “Shame”).
6. American Hustle – Vibrant and rambunctious, and let me say the first 25-minutes in particular are perfect! I also think the David O. Russell film works as some kind of sexy tease – the women are tantalizing. That’s not to say this isn’t foremost a compelling and raucous tale of New Jersey informants, with a tricky zig-zag plot. But how about the people watching, every talking person from A to Z is mesmerizing. “Hustle” has acting muscle unparalleled to most films, obviously Christian Bale included as a paunchy small time con man who gets blackmailed by the FBI. Of the entire cast, my favorite performance however is Amy Adams as the Southwest native who transformed into a British sophisticate faking her knowledge of art and culture.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese’s hedonistic tragicomedy is the “Requiem for a Dream” of big business films except that it’s the opposite of downbeat (it’s too rhapsodic for that). But like “Requiem,” it gives your brain an electric buzzed charge from major over-stimulus. How this film is not NC-17 is its own white collar crime seeped in Hollywood hypocrisy. I don’t condemn the extremely active sex and drug abuse as a point of drama at all, it’s just that this plunge into shameless debauchery should be exclusive to adult audiences only. Based on true events, Leonardo DiCaprio is a wild man financial shark who is a superficial smash-up of Charles Foster Kane and Gordon Gekko, but DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has none of the class of either. But he’s super rich and cocky, and the rise and fall arc is all the more grandiose. Jonah Hill is a brilliant, rascally dweeb and partner in crime. Margot Robbie is stunning and hot-blooded as the high maintenance wife.
8. This is the End – The second apocalyptic comedy of the year, this one self-knowing in its narcissism. For me, this was the politically incorrect sacrilege I needed, uncensored and unconcerned by studio commercial rules. Co-directors / co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg satirize an entire era of Hollywood douchebags, Backstreet Boys wannabes, stoners, skanks, and suck-ups in an Armageddon fantasy with an anything goes spewing egotism. It manages to also have better special effects than plain-faced doomsday pictures. James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Rogen, and Jay Baruchel as a self-centered dweeb all had their individual great moments, all cluelessly expecting a deliverance to a better after-life just because… they’re famous Hollywood actors! A bad-boy classic.
9. All is Lost – Heart-quickening. I love survivalist films of man vs. nature or man vs. Earthly elements, but this is one of the few to really make me fear the agony of the end. And the end is very rough and punishing. Robert Redford, at 77, is sailing in the Indian Sea when a metal cargo container shreds his boat and terminates the radio. Hardly a word is spoken (if you miss the opening voiceover narration, you miss important subtext), but Redford is such a physical actor that we read his every logical move as he fights to survive. The ending embraces the idea of a gambling of going for all or nothing as a last resort tactic. J.C. Chandor proves he can make any kind of picture, “Margin Call” was his 2011 debut.
10. The Place Beyond the Pines – I’ve found it satisfying in how deliberately unsatisfying it is as a whole. Derek Cianfrance, the director, has made a trulyambiguous multi-generational saga. Crucially, Ryan Gosling plays a motor bike stuntman who transitions into a bank robbing sociopath, and Bradley Cooper is the cop whose life ambitions alter once he exposes corruption inside his department. On the outset, “Pines” examines how a criminal act can alter the outcome of the lives of those left behind, redefining individual patterns, and societal patterns, and troubling the offspring children of Gosling and Cooper’s characters. We don’t have all the answers at the end, but it leaves behind stray loose ends that have us pondering for a long time afterwards of its implications.
11. Her – The odd matter-of-fact science-fiction love story between a sad sack (Joaquin Phoenix) and an artificial intelligence computer (Scarlett Johansson, voice) has disturbed me and stuck with me since seeing it. This is how people of the future will look when they avoid human intimacy in favor of computer attachment. This is a future where computers are more intellectually stimulating and therefore better companions compared to actual human companions. Everything from the cinematography, to sound design to film editing, is equally pitch-perfect as it is audacious. Spike Jonze, the writer-director, could have fallen into a trap of making a screeching futuristic dirge like “Alphaville” or “THX 1138” (those are among two horribly overrated “classics”), but his witty approach brings levity to the more depressing implications of his message.
12. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – This blockbuster with a brain is a worthy inclusion into the dystopian future sci-fi genre. Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss, starts a revolution among the districts this time, but her message isn’t direct nor is she outspoken, she’s simply become the only darling among an oppressed society for many decades. Why is it great sci-fi, though? The societal behaviors are whacked, hypocritical, enigmatic in motivation. Francis Lawrence, the director, brings epic flavor and luxurious design to the Capitol, where the great Donald Sutherland rules as President Snow. And the games, brought to vivid life with their Rube Goldberg like traps, suggests the group-mentality strategy is to protect Katniss in the arena because her one life is a more significantly symbolic to fuel an entire society revolution. “Hunger Games” was the better book, “Catching Fire” is the better film.
13. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Director-star Ben Stiller’s sweet family film fable about a daydreamer, approaching middle-age but hasn’t lived a real life of his own until he’s compelled into an adventure, is the kind of good-feelings and good-vibes comedy that are becoming more and more rare. It strays much from the 1947 original and original story of Walter Mitty written by James Thurber in 1939, but I was thoroughly charmed by Stiller’s contemporary take. Mitty gets inspired to go to Greenland then Iceland, and anywhere else necessary, to track down a mysterious photographer (Sean Penn, aptly eccentric) who surely has a missing camera negative for Life magazine’s final issue before it transitions into the online digital age.
14. Prisoners – Hugh Jackman, the victim father of a missing child, becomes a Death Wish avenger in this harrowing kidnapping and ransom drama – one sated with convincing twists, many of them disturbing. Jake Gyllenhaal, with his typical baby face, is actually just as convincing as anyone else this time as the Pennsylvania detective trying to find the girl before it’s too late. Jackman finds a garbled, mentally slow suspect in Paul Dano, and inflicts punishment on him to elicit answers on his imprisoned daughter. This is a thriller of physical and psychological labyrinths, and one strewn with disparaging dead ends. Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) directed.
15. Side Effects – Rooney Mara is riveting as Emily, whose “hopelessness” leads to acting-out rage – but was her violence caused from too much pill-popping? Jude Law is the psychiatrist who prescribes anti-depressant drugs to his patients with too much free-wheeling abandon, jeopardizing his license. Soderbergh’s final theatrical film (he claims!) came out in the month of February which has become representative unfortunately of the dumbed-down movie season. This was anything but dumbed down, it’s a true thinking man’s thriller with a mood-drenched visual design.
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetically Listed): At Any Price; The Bling Ring; The Butler; Dallas Buyers Club; Don Jon; Elysium; Mud; Philomena; Spring Breakers; What Maisie Knew.
SEAN’S BEST FILMS EVER LIST
The last two years I’ve seen list after list of the Top Ten Films Ever. Why 2012 and 2013 inspired this, I don’t know. I had thought of doing a list the last few years to give readers an idea of what kind of films I stand behind. Still, I hadn’t been prompted to go through with it and do my own until I happened to have stumbled onto a comment on EW’s website when they did their Top Ten online where the reader was irked by sheep-like obvious choices. I instantly thought of my own picks and figured, yes, I’m sure even the film connoisseur might be unfamiliar with three or four of my choices. I am happy to impart selections that might be new for you, since discovering something new is what loving cinema is all about. And while “No Country for Old Men” is a well-known title, the inclusion of it might be a shock to some of you for being too new and untested by time. As it turns out, a couple more titles are obvious and yet it would have been phony of me to not include them. If you find a new film to love by the end of the week, then I’ll have done my duty. Or at least re-evaluate your appreciation of a film you saw but hadn’t embraced before.
1. Spring Summer Fall Winter… and Spring(2003, South Korea) – Kim Ki-Duk’s immersive spiritual journey can be carried with you in your heart and mind, day to day, for now and for the future, from birth to old age. After seeing it, and letting yourself digest it, the euphoria of discovery might be your new birth. In the world’s most unseen beautiful location, set on a Buddhist pagoda floating on a lake, a monk (Yeong-su Oh) cares after a young boy (Jong-ho Kim) he is raising to be a monk. We see their daily rituals and then we see broken rituals. As the seasons pass, the film leaps years ahead. We witness the faults of the young boy and then his journey to renewal. We witness the joys of sex, the joys of solitude, and the doubt that lives in-between. The value of self-purpose and destiny, the value of waiting years for a revolving door to happen and the value of waiting years for penance. Aesthetically, this as beautiful as cinema gets. Pace-wise, it moves along limber and amble, and conquers an amazing amount of ground in a scant 96 minutes. “Spring” inspires years of awesome reflective contemplation. Adults only.
2. Walkabout (1971) – Two lost children stagger through the Australian outback accompanied by an Aboriginal boy on his exodus calling to claim his manhood. Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg are the beautiful teen girl and pubescent younger brother, who were certain to doom before they met their guide. I imagine myself as a city person like them lost in the wilderness. I am molded by my urban surroundings, conditioned and programmed just like these two. Force me to a few days in the Outback with no experience, I am impotent and desperate. Give me a guide to teach me and grant me the time to adapt over several weeks, I will persevere and become fond of my new lifestyle. Like all great films possess, “Walkabout” invites you to a part of the world you’ve never seen. Globetrotter Nicolas Roeg made 15 theatrical films, three of them are eternal masterpieces (along with “Walkabout,” the trippy mind-bender “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and the supernatural tale “Don’t Look Now”). His layout of images and sequences are often non-linear, more describable as mosaics in the way he overlaps images and sneaks in elliptical visual information. The result is thematically and emotionally enigmatic and yet splendidly fluid, and if you’re like me, you can watch it year after year for life.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – The ultimate head trip. Every Stanley Kubrick directed image is majestic, and yet, it’s not the same film if you’re watching it on home video. Seeing it on the big screen in a 70mm format is the spectacular way to go. Then you still have to be open to interpreting the mind-bending allegory of the film. I’ve noticed that adults that tune in to catch this late in life have lost their ability for the abstract thought that is required, and are the ones turned off by the idea of meditative cinema over plot. I saw this first at 8-years old when my mind was still shaping, and it filled me with wonder and abstract thought. “2001” meditates on spectacle, the beauty of space, the pros and cons of technology, the struggle between man and the machine that out-thinks him, the mystique of deep space, and the possibilities of evolution that is beyond our current rudimentary concepts. Behold the beauty though, it’s cinema’s most euphoric trance-out.
4. GoodFellas (1990) – Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci in the untouchable Martin Scorsese film that immortalized them. We are taught by grade one that murder, robbery, loan sharking and all that other mayhem stuff is a sin. We know that these wiseguys are a bad morally corrupt outfit and yet it is so appealing and tantalizing that you can’t help but fantasize about being a part of it. “The Godfather” is a classic handsome Greek tragedy of a film, but have you ever fantasized about being one of the Corleones? I’d rather be a GoodFella: The cars, the booze, the nightclubs, the all-night card playing, the stacks of money, the mistresses, the fur coats, the ball-busting… and the prison scenes, when they are incarcerated, are made out like a health spa. The problem is the 1950’s and ’60’s didn’t last forever, for the drug trafficking of the ’80’s tarnished the coolness of gangster life. Anyways, if you have never seen a Scorsese film, which should be a constitutional duty in this lifetime, then start here. When you see the camera tour through a red-lamp nightclub via the backdoors through the service entrance, passageway the kitchen, and then passageway onto its service floor where Liotta and Lorraine Bracco get seated at their exclusive table, you will begin to understand why Scorsese is such a huge deal.
5. All That Jazz (1979) – Bob Fosse’s glitzy showbiz musical that is a reinterpretation of Fellini’s “8½…” and outdoes it. Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is a Broadway Theatre director and choreographer, womanizer, pill-popper, chain-smoker, and ego-maniac. Some men have the natural talent to attract dozens of women at once and Gideon is one of them, juggling many relationships at once. That could be inherently offensive to some, but I’ll tell you, Gideon is open about it and the women are aware of his indiscretions. Excess is a huge theme, some people just can’t help but live fast and reckless, and yes, I admire the people that do that but I am not one of them. The film is a self-indulgent, excessive fantasy and it gets more avante-garde as it nears the end (Jessica Lange is the exquisite Angel of Death). Fosse is saying, Death can be an individual creation. As entertainment, “Jazz” continues viewing after viewing as the most exhilarating movie out there for me. Best dance movie, and sexiest movie, too.
6. Citizen Kane (1941) – Deep focus, low-angle shots, non-linear narrative, radio music accompaniment, the “documentary” newsreel as story overview, the breakfast scene montage which depicts an entire marriage in five vignettes, the matte shots. “Kane” has been hailed so long as such a landmark in technical filmmaking that it has overshadowed the fact that it contains one of life’s most profound messages: How to not beunhappy like Kane. In addition to directing, Orson Welles is Charles Foster Kane in this thinly veiled exposé of mogul William Randolph Hearst. Charles is given away by his poor parents to a rich surrogate father, grows up into an idealistic young man who starts a newspaper, ebulliently expands his media to nationwide syndication, vainly steps up into political ambition, and builds himself the mother of all mansions. Except the ostentatious mansion is no fun, it’s vast and gloomy – it’s a symbol of how Kane can’t see (big message) that he’s misused all his riches and bought himself unhappiness. The mystery of uncovering the meaning of his final word “Rosebud” goes past all investigators and biographers, but is unearthed to us as a key hole into his inner child id.
7. No Country for Old Men (2007) – For all those people who couldn’t grasp the ending it’s this: Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell is disillusioned that he never found God in old age and that retirement before professional closure on his last case with indefinitely haunt him. Then there’s the matter of the satchel that caused the killing spree, the film never says outright who ended up with it, but the answer is right there: Who would give a ten-year old boy a hundred dollar bill (following the car accident), if you didn’t have $2 million to spare? Long after the film’s events, serial killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) will spend the rest of his life attracting violence wherever he goes. It’s part of his chiseled and engraved nature. Just as it was written in Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) that drinking and cheating on his wife is his engraved nature. The paradox of fatalism and predestination makes this perfectly shot and structured Coen Brothers’ film their magnum opus, and yes, it’s as profound as “Citizen Kane.”
8. Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972, Germany) – The prologue is a riddle itself possibly not fully comprehended until the end: “After the conquest and plundering of the Inca empire by Spain, the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazon headwaters. A large expedition of Spanish adventurers, led by Gonzalo Pizzaro, set off from the Peruvian highlands in late 1560. The only document to survive from this lost expedition is the diary of the monk Gaspar de Carvajal.” Werner Herzog’s Amazon journey was the hardest film there ever has been made (I’d rather have joined the “Apocalypse Now” shoot), so remote and cut-off from typical filming locations, you won’t see anything like it ever again. Klaus Kinski, that bubbling volcano of a physical presence, is the conquistador Pizzaro who capriciously leads a company of men down a doomed river to find the city of gold, his men getting picked off by unseen Indians in the jungle or by immediate disease. Herzog forsakes conventional plotting to give us a vision of madness and megalomania of a 15th century buccaneer who dreams of the ultimate empire but is blind to the death surrounding him.
9. The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Worth a million smiles. Honestly this was the most enchanting thing ever if you were young enough when you saw it the first time. Judy Garland’s Dorothy and her dog Toto go on a trek, meet a magician who forecasts the future from a crystal ball, returns home to face a Twister, and crashes in the Land of Oz! Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion (Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr). I’m pretty much ecstatic for all of them. And tickled too by the Emerald City and Wicked Witches’ castle, and if there has ever been a road I wanted to skip along it’s on the yellow brick road. The beauty of the original “Oz” is that it’s an exciting parable not “relevant” to anything topical, except to the mysteries of the benign heart. Art direction and costumes are dazzlers. Director Victor Fleming was a feisty pageantry type of filmmaker who did not have to face the kind of bullying studio interference that plague filmmakers today (take Sam Raimi’s “Oz”). MGM felt the Kansas scenes and Garland song was tacky, Fleming argued tersely and won. Always enjoyable and uplifting no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
10. Schindler’s List (1993) – I considered choosing a more offbeat and obscure title to gather attention, but Steven Spielberg’s film is too overpowering too ignore. Spielberg transformed public perception of the Holocaust – certainly it was the first big budget film to depict the bloody horrors, the mass genocide, and thehows of the few lucky to get out. Liam Neeson is the enterprising businessman who came to Nazi-occupied Poland to exploit Jews as free labor but then became a humanitarian when he witnessed genocide in Krakow. Ralph Fiennes is the Nazi prison camp commandant Amon Goeth, unblinking in his evil and alliance to National Socialism. Ben Kingsley is Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant and Schindler’s right-hand man. Somehow we feel like we meet the 1,100 people too that were saved at the end of the film within its 3 hours and 15 minutes. The black & white is not only essential in establishing an authentic mood, it is a definitive example of what high contrast lighting can do in forcing us to scrutinize the frame for details. Seeing “List” is to understand the darkest hours of human history of the twentieth century and to be empathetically wiser.
A CLOSER LOOK:
‘NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’ (2007)
“That’s the most f—ed up ending I’ve seen since The Sopranos!” one audience member yelled at a showing that was my second viewing of the Coen Brothers film back when it came out. No Country for Old Men (2007), which I attest is a perfect film, intrigued but baffled many. This article is intended to discuss key scenes in analytical detail, and is unnecessary to read unless you’ve seen it once already and want to know more.
The following is themes and elements analysis:
• The opening voice-over – We don’t know who is talking but if you know movies well the voice is undoubtedly the voice of Tommy Lee Jones. We gather info that he’s the sheriff in one of the Texas border counties. We don’t know that he’s not going to actually appear on screen for about another thirty minutes. Jones’ Sheriff Bell tells us a story of a teen boy he once sent to the electric chair on account of his testimony. “The papers described it as a crime of passion, but he told me there weren’t nothing passionate about it. Said he’d been fixin’ to kill someone for as long as he could remember. Said if I let him out of there, he’d kill somebody again. Said he was goin’ to hell. Reckoned he’d be there in about 15 minutes.” The Sheriff now finds it is unsettling than in the new era that killers breed for the sake of terrorizing others.
• Not just about the money, he’s a serial killer – Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is easily bugged by timid, ineffectual people. Chigurh is not too dissimilar a creation from a real-life serial killer like, say for instance, Ed Gein. Every situation he encounters is a potential bloodsport for him. Can he get away with it? He sizes up whatever situation he’s in and decides whether he can get away with it. The fat, bossy desk clerk at the trailer park is the one incidental character that doesn’t cower from Chigurh’s over-demanding voice. Chigurh can’t kill her, for instance, because he kind of has respect for this fat lady who doesn’t take flak from anybody.
• The coin toss game – Chigurh wasn’t going to bother with the gas station attendant at all until this fat, little man got on his nerves. I think Chigurh gets off on the excitement of “Chance.” Heads or tails the coin will call it. It’s exciting to Chigurh if he wins because then he has to execute a kill on the spot. Or perhaps fate or some transcendent power will be on the victim’s side. But why this game? Who knows. Maybe this is too much speculation but maybe in childhood Chigurh’s father would beat him or not beat him on account of a mistake, and the coin toss would decide.
• Cattle gun – Compressed air shoots a bolt that induces immediate unconsciousness in cattle, or in this case, human victims. Chigurh’s lethal weapon of choice, and we assume he’s been carrying this device around for years. Think how handy it is. A killing device as well as a door knob breaking device. And the sound doesn’t reverberate loudly like a gun. A silent weapon.
• Llewelyn Moss the sportsman – Played by Josh Brolin. When I was first introduced to his character I thought he was a policeman. Turns out he’s just a hunting sportsman who just happens to stumble upon $2 million in cash and large stashes of heroin. Not a greedy man typically, but of course, he just takes the money. Dealing heroin would be too difficult and dangerous, he thinks. Little does he realize that taking $2 million will bring endless danger.
• Return to the scene of the money – Llewelyn’s big mistake. He would have gotten away with it if he hadn’t returned. The intent? Wipe away any fingerprints at the scene. Or just give the dying hombre, i.e., drug courier some water. The hombre was really suffering. But what a mistake: Llewelyn’s heart is too big.
• Chigurh’s role with the money – Not entirely explained, but sense of it can be made. Perhaps he took a backseat job with the other Mexican goons to do the money / heroin exchange and saw it as an opportunity to steal all the loot for himself. Nah, perhaps not. Maybe he knew about this money-drugs trade from rival gangsters (the two white men he easily shoots down in cold blood). Whatever the case, Chigurh wants it all to himself and killing off opponents is the easy part.
• The Del Rio motel room 138 – Llewelyn hides the money in room 138 in the air duct. But then he checks into another room next door. Why? Because he knows somebody’s in his room 138 who shouldn’t be there. Who? He doesn’t know. But the drapes are a giveaway. Room 139 he should still be able to pull out the money out from the air duct.
• The transponder – Llewelyn finally wonders how killers are managing to successfully follow him to despite having gone incognito. The radar device is hidden in the satchel of money. Llewelyn finds this out too late as he had never bothered combing through all the bills. Chigurh finds him in a hotel that must be in a ghost town. Nobody’s awake at that time of night. No police force within the vicinity. No other person around except for the hotel night watchman who we assume was given a silent death by Chigurh. The hotel shooting leads out to the neighborhood streets. Shoot out old-west style!
• The second transponder – Rich and greedy businessman (Stephen Root) who had bankrolled this major drug transaction has the second transponder. When things tumbled out of control, the business man has to thereby hire bounty hunter Carson Wells (played by Woody Harrelson) to get the money and drugs back for him. The businessman had given the second transponder to the crew of Mexican gangsters that had found their way to the Del Rio motel earlier and into room 138. Chigurh assumed this crew has the money. Meeting / chasing down Llewelyn Moss was something of a surprise.
• Key Scene cleaning wounds – Nauseating as you watch Chigurh clean his wounds after he’s robbed the pharmacy. The Coen Brothers want you to explicitly see the gross and revolting detail. An average person, i.e., average viewer would cringe in tending cavity wounds that large. But not Chigurh. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT! Chigurh has spent a lifetime dealing with excesses in pain, and not even a car accident later on can keep him down for long. He is the human Terminator.
• The Sheriff Bell / Carla Jean Moss scene – Carla Jean is Llewelyn’s girl. Bell tells her that her man doesn’t know how deep of trouble he’s into. He tries to explain to her, in his own prism of experience, that some men (like Chigurh) are so innate to violence that anything different is inconceivable to them.
• No blood on my feet: the Chigurh / Carson Wells encounter – Carson doesn’t have a prayer. Pay attention though to a crucial detail. We saw it at the Del Rio motel where Chigurh checks his socks (he can’t stand other men’s blood on the soles of his feet). Chigurh shoots Carson Wells and then lifts his legs up on the bed so the blood won’t leak onto his favorite cowboy boots while he casually moves onto conversation on the telephone.
• Llewelyn’s new girl – In his final hours, a random flirty woman talks him into beer and probably sex. We had the impression that Llewelyn might have loved Carla Jean faithfully, but now we see how he can be talked into sex by alluring women. This is conjecture to ponder over: If he had gotten away with the money, would Carla Jean been his woman forever? If push came to shove, would Llewelyn (theoretically) risk his life to protect his woman? (Theoretically) Probably not.
• Two doorways – Close encounters between Sheriff Bell and Anton Chigurh. The Coen Brothers deliberately deceive us when Sheriff Bell enters the motel door after it has been taped off as a crime scene. But as it turns out, Chigurh’s hiding out in the room next door. If Sheriff Bell had entered it, he probably would have been a goner. As a first-time viewer, we think this is the final pay-off, the showdown scene that will settle everything. Nothing is easily settled in this film. This turns out to be not the dramatic pay-off of the movie. Why was Chigurh there? To obtain the money, of course. Which we assume he finally did.
• What happened to Carla Jean? – Chigurh made Carla Jean play the coin toss game. We’re gasping for answers as to what happens as the Coen brothers cut to a shot of Chigurh out on the front porch. Did he or didn’t he? We know he did as soon as checks the soles of his shoes to see if he got any of Carla Jean’s blood spilled on his favorite kickass cowboy boots.
• The finale car accident – Excess of pain for Chigurh, but he’s used to this sort of thing. The car accident has nothing to do with the plot… and everything to do with the plot depending on how you look at it. Look at the incident as an act of vengeance by God. If you believe in metaphysics, that every person is destined to have certain things happen to them repeatedly no matter how hard an effort there is to change, you will have a greater appreciation of what happens to Chigurh. The car accident is freakish, inexplicable, with no good reason for having happened. Eternally Chigurh will always go through a cycle of living through these types of blood-gushing events that spills blood no matter how long he lives. Spiritually he attracts violence to come his way. Eternally.
• The money tip – Following the car wreck, Chigurh gives a boy a $100 bill for his shirt. He has $2 million now, so he can afford buying people off with a C-note. Is the rest of the money in the car? No! No! Chigurh’s not dumb. Just because he eventually traveled to Carla Jean’s doesn’t mean he carries the money with him everywhere. It was probably left at whatever hotel or locker depot of his choosing.
• Genre thriller or something more essential? – At the film’s outset, we think it’s another cops-robbers-and-missing-loot thriller in the vein of “Fargo” or “A Simple Plan.” Instead we realize we’ve watched a character-driven movie where the essential antagonist is a serial killer that will never end his terror on others. With $2 million in safekeeping, that makes Chigurh the richest serial killer in the world! Imagine that. Chigurh has all the money anyone could ever wish for to live comfortably, and yet, as proven with victim Carla Jean, he will continue killing as his life’s calling. The killing of random folk will continue long after the end credits roll.
• Spiritual loss – Sheriff Bell visits an old relative. He says, “I figured when I became an older man somehow God would enter my life.” Bell is disillusioned because God never entered his life. He’s not touched with grace. He may have locked criminals away but he’s never felt like he has made the world a better place. The world has gotten worse. Old men have nothing to feel proud about. The world ain’t as pretty as it used to be, reveries of his once peaceful childhood have been chiseled away from him. The world has become downright mean and ugly.
• It’s 1980 and not 2007 – Curiously, if you see closely, such as on a newspaper date, the film is set in 1980 and not 2007. Does the date matter? It could be 1980 or 2007, but the world looks the same in those Texas towns, and arguably, the world is just as violent in either time period.
• Final Scene: Sheriff Bell discusses retirement and his dreams – Bell is retired but can he function as a retired man? His identity has been as a sheriff for so long that he can’t ever imagine doing anything else. Like Chigurh will continue killing streaks, Bell will never stop thinking about criminals or stop his desire to solve or resolve crimes. He can’t be at peace with himself. In his dream, he imagines himself a child again. A child in a peaceful world where if he was separated from his father on a campsite he could catch up with him in the dark. Once upon a time, in childhood, dark was nothing to fear. But as the world evolved into a more violent and uncertain place, Bell knows he can’t trust the dark where killers and evil lurk. Simple pleasures as a stroll in the dark with papa are vanquished. Awakened to this viewpoint, the world is now a place where old men perish and Bell knows he is bound to succumb as well. When it comes down to it, killers like Chigurh and many like him are stuck in his head. Retired, he can’t resolve any of this. I wonder after the film ends if Bell will come out of retirement and reprise his occupation. Maybe he won’t because he knows he can’t do any good anyway.
Movies are best anyways when afterwards you have other people to discuss them with. People also tend to bolt out of the exits as soon as the credits roll. Even after a second viewing, and a third and fourth, I’m still sitting there absorbing and pondering over the power “No Country for Old Men” has on me as the credits roll.
LEGENDS & MYTHS: “THE EXORCIST” (1973)
It’s been awhile since it’s been discussed, but “The Exorcist,” the granddaddy of horror films (click here for retrospect review), was plagued by mythical forces. Today’s horror movies, as gross and blood-gushing as they seem, are very run-of-the-mill that don’t believe in much other than the commercial cash-grab. The difference with the 1973 classic is that the people involved believed with meaning behind what they were doing, backing the story of how the devil takes possession of a 12-year old girl and wreaks havoc on her. The effects it had on people at the time who worked on it, or saw it in release, were profound.
William Friedkin, the hot director coming off the heels of the 1971 Oscar-winning smash “The French Connection,” agreed with Warner Bros. to adapt William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” with the promise the script would be re-worked – he found the melodrama too thick and the symbolism over-literal in the early draft. Friedkin would bring something cinematic, something realistic, documentary-like to his approach. Once in production, immediate problems and freak occurrences took place.
Friedkin had such bad luck during the making of his film that he asked the Church to perform a holy blessing on his film set. The first set burned down, and the fire department was unable to detect a cause other than a theory of an electrical short circuit. The Church declined to perform its holy blessing, a mistake perhaps for the misfortunes that were to soon follow.
Nearly every actor faced personal troubles during the next nine months of the shoot. Ellen Burstyn, as the mother to the possessed Regan, sprained her back (during the crucifix stabbing scene) and was laid up in bed for several weeks. Linda Blair, as Regan, suffered a back injury when the metal harness levitating her snapped. Max Von Sydow (Father Merrin) arrived in New York to film his first scenes and immediately learned of his brother’s death. He fell ill and was unable to move from bed for several days. Jack MacGowran finished his final scene where he’s killed by the devil and died suddenly one week after wrap-up. Jason Miller, in his film debut as a priest, faced hard times when his son was struck down by a speeding motorcyclist. The assistant cameraman’s wife died. Count too the number of on-the-set accidents: a carpenter accidentally cut off his thumb, a lighting technician lost a toe.
Ellen Burstyn added to the urban legend, saying, “There were nine deaths which is an enormous amount of deaths connected with the film. Some of them very directly like actor Jack McGowan, who gets killed in the film, completed shooting, and died the following week.” Burstyn continued, “Max von Sydow’s brother died. The assistant cameraman’s wife’s baby died. The man who refrigerated the set died. The young black night watchman…”
“The Exorcist” became a risk to all that viewed the film, too. No other film in history generated such hysteria: there were dozens of cases in Los Angeles and New York alone where patrons vomited and experienced intense nausea, perhaps in their identification of witnessing 12-year old heroine Regan endure emasculation. Hospitals recorded a number of cases of patients experiencing hallucinations after walking out of the film when no prior drug use was precipitous, evidently the persuasive sight of Satan in literal or subliminal form was overwhelming in the way that was a transcendent shock to them and to many others as well.
Father William O’Malley recalls, “It was really volcanic when it first came out. It only opened in New York in one theater,” continuing, “I was getting calls from all over the place. People wanting me to exorcise their daughter, exorcise their cat, exorcise their house.”
All of this was back in the day when audiences actually had physiological responses to movies – quite different from desensitized horror movies today.
The new opening of “The Conjuring” is one of the more effective horror movies, and so was “Insidious” three years ago, also by director James Wan who with his swirly-whirly camerawork is a comparable contemporary to Friedkin. But the effects on audience of these two are more ephemeral and short-lived compared to how “The Exorcist” shattered and haunted the national psyche forty years ago. Because it was the first to deal with the devil in a serious way, in a brutal way, in a theological way, the authenticity of its then innovative subject of exorcisms remain more powerful than all the hundreds of knock-offs that have come over the years.
Friedkin wraps up with hindsight. “Over the years, I think that, most people take out of “The Exorcist” what they bring to it. If you believe that the world is a dark and evil place then the film will reinforce that. But if you believe that there is a force for good that combats and, eventually, triumphs over evil, then you’ll be taking out of the film what we tried to put into it.”
BOX OFFICE BOMBS THAT
ARE ACTUALLY GOOD MOVIES
Here is a list of movies that have withstood box office disaster and are regarded fondly as good movies in due course of time. They are listed in descending year:
Rampart (2012) — Total gross: $972,000 — Woody Harrelson in the best performance of the year and one of the great performances you will ever see. As racist, malevolent and corrupt LAPD cop Dave Brown, the transfixed Harrelson plays him as a ticking time bomb.
Cedar Rapids (2011) — $6.8m — Ed Helms is a naive insurance salesman who has never left his hometown of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, population well under 50,000. Reluctantly, Helms is dispatched to the big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a big convention. An adult comedy, and a happy one.
Flipped (2010) – $1.7m — Set in 1963, about a bashful first “crush.” Callan McAuliffe and Madeline Carroll play the innocent inexperienced teens. The kind of sweet teen romance absent from today’s times, directed by Rob Reiner.
The Box (2009) – $15.0m – Strange and paradoxical sci-fi set in the 1970’s and pinned with omens galore, one that doesn’t make clarifying sense but it leaves you amused in your pondering of “Twilight Zone” possibilities. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden star.
Extract (2009) – $10.8m – The kind of Mike Judge comedies (“Office Space”) that he makes only to be appreciated much later, often in repeat viewings. Jason Bateman is the company president trying to end his headaches brought upon by employees who are flunkies and his promiscuous wife.
Hot Rod (2007) – $13.9m. Everybody loves Andy Samberg king-goofball on “Saturday Night Live.” Why shouldn’t they love him here, as an inept stuntman for hire, in this ultimate ode to Samberg-ian outrageousness?
Duma (2005) – $870,000. An American children’s film set in South Africa, made for smart children not dumb ones. Big wide-open horizons, the lustrous but treacherous deserts, the wild species habitat, and the boy and the beloved pet cheetah in the middle of it. Directed by Carroll Ballard who also made “The Black Stallion” (1980) and “Fly Away Home” (1996).
Femme Fatale (2002) – $6.6m. Brian DePalma’s mindbending thriller suffused with luscious soft core sex stars Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Antonio Banderas, and a few other women in stiletto boots. And it’s for people with a taste for the outrageously ridiculous.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – $17.8m. The one Adam Sandler comedy appreciated by art house aficionados, hipsters, and ironists. Certainly it wasn’t intended for his core audience. Offbeat and wryly humorous about obsessive-compulsion, Paul Thomas Anderson directed this in-between “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood.”
Mumford (1999) – $4.5m. An incalculable delight and an impossible to describe comedy without giving away its nifty plot twist. Loren Dean is just fine as the small town therapist central in the movie that is surrounding by a great, eager supporting cast: Hope Davis, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Mary McDonnell, Ted Danson, Alfre Woodard, Zooey Deschanel and Jason Lee in a performance that explains the trajectory of his whole career. Its angled premise is psychotherapy, but nevertheless it is one of the feel-great movies.
Office Space (1999) – $10.8m. The ultimate Mike Judge comedy that will never die as long as millions of Americas commute to work for a job they can’t stand. Ron Livingston looks like a human blotch but he’s perfect as Peter Gibbons, the disgruntled computer programmer who thinks up a scheme to get out of working forever. David Herman as co-worker and accomplice Michael Bolton screeches, “We’re not going to white-collar resort prison. No, no, no. We’re going to federal POUND ME IN THE ASS prison!”
The Big Lebowski (1997) – $17.4m. The Coen Brothers’ visually whacked masterpiece wedged in musical numbers inspired by their favorite Busby Berkeley movies from their childhood. Jeff Bridges makes Jeff Lebowski the laziest man alive, and laid-back bowling enthusiast, but he’s thrown into the most convoluted of crime plots that gets him off his own rump just a little bit more often than he usually would. Madcap, non-sequitur screwball; absurdly rambling speeches offset by deadpan one-liners.
FAREWELL TO ROGER EBERT
Roger Ebert dies at age 70 after being a film critic and a voice of reason for 46 years (his Pulitzer Prize in 1975 is among his many validations). With this heartache in me right now I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what Ebert’s ten favorite films are, but if you gave me 5 minutes I could probably come up with them all. Many of his favorites became my favorites (“Citizen Kane,” “The Third Man,” “Apocalypse Now”), and Ebert plunged into subconscious depths to elucidate on these films on deeper levels. You were humbled on multiple levels, like “Oh, I never saw it that way!” or “Wow, that’s why I responded to it!”
In early 2006, I attended a book signing of his “Great Movies II” tome, a collection of essays on cinematic landmarks. Ebert asked me following his intro to discuss a film I’d seen recently (we’d known each other for about three minutes). Before his audience of 100-plus people, he asked me to review my choice “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” for them, and then I also blurbed about “Downfall.” My choices were off the mainstream radar, and so felt I had impressed him. After the signing, we talked for ten minutes. I told him “Walkabout” (1971) and “Aguirre Wrath of God” (1972) were the film reviews by him that changed my life. He intuitively understood why it meant something to me personally. A couple months later, he began his bout with cancer. By the end of the year he returned to reviewing movies even though he had lost his voice.
But I want to go back to the beginning where it all began. As a little kid, I liked “Superman” and Bond movies. Indiana Jones movies. Stuff that Ebert loved, too, by the way. But what’s crucial is that I got my life education from Ebert.
Of course, I had watched “Siskel & Ebert” which had been in national syndication starting in 1986. In retrospect, it was the year 1989 that I really got into movies. That year, their review of “Born on the 4th of July” is the one that memorably propelled me into the theater. And “Do the Right Thing” became the must-see when it hit home video. I would later recognize that Ebert was a champion of Spike Lee and Black Cinema. “Boyz N the Hood” (1991), “Malcolm X” (1992), “Menace II Society” (1993), “Fresh” (1994), “Eve’s Bayou” (1997) are among Black Cinema classics that became enduring titles because of Ebert. It’s sorrowful to think these films wouldn’t be “represented” at all if Ebert wasn’t around to tout them.
I was young enough to wonder why Martin Scorsese was such a big deal. I heard the buzz on “GoodFellas” a month before it came out in the Fall of 1990. Ebert somehow got me to rent “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” and then Scorsese suddenly became a big deal. But something about Ebert expounding the themes of a man’s “sexual inadequacy” of the Jake LaMotta character in “Bull” had seized me. I hadn’t grasped such abstract issues in films before. I might have only looked at “Bull” as a boxing film, an Italian-America snapshot, and an angry man movie until Ebert compelled me to look deeper into what drove LaMotta towards self-destructive impulses.
Sometime in the early 1990’s on the “Siskel & Ebert” program, Ebert spent three minutes with his Home Video recommendation segment to discuss an obscure black & white Japanese film called “Woman in the Dunes.” I said to myself, “I gotta see that!” although in truth it took several years, maybe seven years or so, until I got around to it (a brilliant film, I would ultimately discover). Only in hindsight did I realize how odd it was, as well as a signature of his power, that Ebert would insist his syndicated program would devote a few minutes to a 1964 curio that hardly anybody in this country had ever seen, no less heard about. Even in the 1990’s, for a major network to allow forum on anything but mainstream American fare, stuff with movie stars and that was in color, was a longshot by any standard. Ebert got away with it conduit of his human approach, because he illuminated ways for newbies to relate to obscure cinematic art.
In 1994, Ebert convinced me (even more than Siskel) to go see a three-hour basketball documentary called “Hoop Dreams.” To this day, it’s not an essential favorite of mine – I can name a half dozen better films that year, at least – but what matters is that, even not being as exhilarating as Ebert found it, “Hoop Dreams” is an exceptional moment in my awareness of Chicago, the black experience, the reality of pursuing a sports career, and sympathizing with working class lives shredded by community violence. Subjects that would have eluded me otherwise. Seeing Ebert’s film once was enough, but the fact I came out with refined knowledge is what counts.
“Leaving Las Vegas,” “Crumb,” “Fargo,” “Breaking the Waves,” “Bound,” “The Ice Storm,” “What Dreams May Come,” “Babe: Pig in the City” and “Dark City” would become breakthrough films I saw during the next few years that I might not have seen had Ebert not compelled me to go.
The “Great Movies” series began in 1996, but I might not have discovered it until 1999 thanks to the assist of the internet.
The moment Ebert turned me onto “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) my taste in film reached a new peak that sums up what I crave from movies today. Werner Herzog had yet to be seriously on my radar, I knew his name off-hand but far from comprehensively. When Ebert wrote about his film as a Great Movies piece in 1999, I knew immediately it wasn’t enough to rent “Aguirre,” I had to buy a copy. To this day, it’s one of the few movies I have to re-watch at least once a year. The more you delve into Herzog’s 16th century Amazon epic, the more you realize it is perhaps the most ambitious, impossible accomplishment in modern cinema. Ebert had the propensity to not only get you to understand the Herzog vision, but how to redefine your vision of cinema entirely. Another way to look at it is that Ebert had already made me appreciate ordinary movies to their max levels, but he redirected me in how to look for extraordinary movies.
I was introduced to many essential films in the “Great Movies” canon by Ebert in those pivotal years of college and post-college education: “Ikiru” (1952) “The 400 Blows” (1959), “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971).
My favorite film that I discovered in the early 2000’s though became an obscure Korean import that had not been reviewed by Ebert – I found it on my own. “Spring Summer Fall Winter… and Spring” (2003) by Kim Ki-Duk is not a film that has been heard about exponentially in America, but I was relieved when Ebert wrote about it in 2009. I confess, his printed essay became a validation of my taste. And it was an exciting pronouncement of this Korean film itself, because it opened the chance of popular discussion now on a film – that I regard as cinema’s finest – that would have fallen into a too rare obscurity.
I agreed in manifest with Ebert’s thumbs-up/thumbs-down choices, perhaps 95% of the time. Yet even when I disagreed vehemently with Ebert’s choices, I still attained value. “Crash” (2005) is the archetype case where I hated it – for being loudly melodramatic, for breeding stereotypes that further inflame the race relations problem. Yet Ebert founded a positive discussion and grace that he felt “Crash” demonstrated, one that was open-face idealistic. I disagreed and still don’t like the film, but I learned something about the opposite perspective. A bad film wasn’t a complete waste of time, as long as Ebert taught me something about it. It also became an indicator of how widespread an influence Ebert became. I believe “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” “Juno,” “The Hurt Locker,” and “Argo” became Oscar winners because year after year the industry sought out Ebert’s endorsements.
In 1967, Ebert started as a film critic (the “Bonnie & Clyde” review is what bolstered him into critic stardom). He wrote the screenplay for the cult film “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” in 1970. He became an author of various books on film criticism and myriad subjects, and his tweets on social issues brought him a new audience. Blogging on the horrors of failed gun control and Chicago violence, on the Palestine-Israel conflict, on the Democrat/Republican stalemates, and on internet culture won him new legions of fans. His website had millions of readers yearly.
Ebert’s writing excelled in his final five years, embodying everything. More provocative, more acute to experience, more empathetic than ever. He understood not just movies but human feelings, the world and the issues that characterize us. A movie review by him in the last year in particular had unparalleled wisdom – it wasn’t just a movie review, it was life itself. It’s hard to find one that didn’t.
OSCARS 2013: BEST FILMS THAT
RECEIVED ZERO OSCAR NOMS
Due to short-sightedness, the Oscars are fallible when it comes to selecting certain films that will eventually prove longevity. Some of their nominees will be forgotten a year later (“Les Miserables,” anyone?), but here I supply a list of films that had ZERO nominations and what they should have been nominated for:
Take This Waltz – The most powerful film of the year was a chick flick?! I had this named #2 on my year’s ten best list. If I were writer-director Sarah Polley, I would be devastated that I wasn’t nominated for anything. I mean, she has to be aware that she’s done something special, right? Of course, this is a grown-up chick flick with brains, and although the marital infidelity picture has been done to death, this one is fresh, perceptive and superior in its emotionally honesty – it has more to do with the paralyzing conscience one has of even occupying thoughts of wanting to cheat. Nominations should have included Best Picture, Best Director Sarah Polley, Best Actress Michelle Williams, Best Original Screenplay by Polley, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score.
Polisse (France) – Accomplishes everything that the American “End of Watch” couldn’t get done right. This Child Protection Unit of the police department is out to rescue young victims from unsafe homes. Writer-director Maiwenn spent several months interviewing and dining real police officers as well as going on ride-alongs. The pay-off is a rich, always lively film that has us concerned with a dozen cases at once. Recognizable people, not the clichéd thugs that populate “Watch.” Best Picture, Best Foreign Film, Best Director Maiwenn, Best Original Screenplay by Maiwenn, Best Film Editing.
Bernie – I never thought it was going to kill it at awards time because of voters’ short attention spans since the film opened in April, but I really thought Jack Black was at least going to be nominated as Texas funeral director Bernie Tiede, the nicest guy ever to commit murder. Richard Linklater, the movie industry’s most undervalued director, deserves kudos for peppering his film with interviews of real town gossips who knew Bernie. Best Picture, Best Director Richard Linklater, Best Actor Jack Black, Best Supporting Actress Shirley MacClaine, Best Original Screenplay by Skip Hollandsworth and Linklater.
Samsara – One of the most visually marvelous documentaries you will ever see. Ron Fricke is a hero of mine, five years he spent shooting in 25 countries, capturing exotic life around the world – the progress, the over-progress and the indigenous. Shot in 70mm, it’s just simply breathtaking. No documentary has ever been nominated for cinematography before, but it’s about time the Academy starts entertaining such gestures for the future. Best Picture, Best Documentary Feature, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score.
Rampart – Of course it wasn’t nominated for anything, it was ineligible. To explain, it was eligible for the 2012 Oscars when it was released, in like, four theaters the last weekend of December 2011 before it was pulled. Then PR decided, after mucking it up, they’d put their marketing work onto something else. The movie was released in a hundred-plus theaters two months later in February, Oscar talk post-mortem. Didn’t matter if Woody Harrelson’s performance is one of the greatest ever put on screen (OK. For a measuring stick, I’ll say it’s one of the 30 or 40 best ever). This isn’t another movie of sociopathic evil. It’s real, this is how it is sociopathic evil. With Harrelson as dirty cop Dave Brown. Best Picture, Best Actor Woody Harrelson, Best Original Screenplay by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman.
The Dark Knight Rises – The inadequate script is the mass-collective gripe. But this isn’t just another ordinary movie, or blockbuster. This is another Christopher Nolan directing job and he doesn’t make mere movies. He makes symphonies. Anyway, the movie has a prescient credibility: this is how a distressed big city will cave in when politics and public utilities get overthrown one day. I’m not insensitive: There’s a reason why nobody would, or could, vote for this. The Aurora, CO tragedy cast too big a spell. There will be a time again when TDKR will be judged on its own isolated merits. Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.
Arbitrage – A thinking man’s thriller, which at this point means only adults of a certain age will feel the thrills and anxiety. Because somebody doesn’t die by the hand of a gun every ten minutes it might mean “so what” to an average 12-year old viewer. Instead, with Richard Gere in what is perhaps the performance of his career, it’s about a multi-billionaire hedge fund manager covering up a crime of passion as well as a crime of fraud. The guilt is overwhelming, but Gere juggles multiple lies at once. Something men and women of a certain age might comprehend as scary. Best Actor Richard Gere, Best Supporting Actress Susan Sarandon, Best Original Screenplay Nicholas Jarecki.
Magic Mike – Director Steven Soderbergh is always good with his actors (he even lets rising star Channing Tatum improvise his own script), but never has Matthew McConaughey been as entertaining as he is here as the boss of a male strip club. He’s not simply a man of prowess and stage charisma, he’s eerily in charge of his underlings as if he were a pimp. He’s money-smart, savvy, hip – all of that. And he knows how to control others, men and women, and twist their vulnerabilities. He’s a charismatic exploiter. And yes, the strip scenes are stunningly choreographed. Best Supporting Actor Matthew McConaughey, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing.
By the way, my favorite technical category is Best Cinematography. Always has been. Great camerawork and visual dazzle can allow you to see something special and new in ways that haven’t mustered before. If I was in charge of the entire category, I would have substituted some of them and definitely nominated “Samsara” and “The Master” in place.
OSCARS 2012: BEST FILMS THAT
RECEIVED ZERO OSCAR NOMS
Due to short-sightedness, the Oscars are fallible when it comes to selecting certain films that will eventually prove longevity. Some of their nominees will be forgotten a year later (“Extremely Loud,” anyone?), but here I supply a list of films that had ZERO nominations this year that will still be embraced for years to come.
Source Code – This thriller on a train has a heart-pounding excitement, possibly because on a continual 8-minute loop, the train explodes. It’s an ingenious, only-in-the-movies kind of thriller, but it’s brainy sci-fi. Jake Gyllenhaal is an unwilling commuter, on a time travel circuit, who can change back time if he can mitigate his mistakes. Nominations should have included Best Picture, Best Director Duncan Jones, Best Original Screenplay by Ben Ripley, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing.
A Dangerous Method – David Cronenberg continues to be the best director in the world to never have been nominated for an Oscar (acknowledge omissions for “The Fly,” “Crash,” “eXistenZ,” “A History of Violence”). In the early 1900’s, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) of Vienna is busy molding his intellectual ideas of psychology and the theory of the human sexual drive along with colleague Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Taking a personal and professional risk, Jung has an affair with one of his former patients (Keira Knightley). Psychological studies, which have such major impact in our world today, might have been steered subtlely due to certain short-comings of these iconic men. Nominations should have included, Best Picture, Best Director David Cronenberg, Best Actor Michael Fassbender, Best Supporting Actress Keira Knightley, Best Adapted Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction.
Shame – The most haunting and disturbing movie of last year, but since we live in a society where sex addiction is not taken seriously, “Shame” has become all too important. This is the ugly side of sex where young professionals like Brandon (Michael Fassbender) fear emotional intimacy, find liaisons with a series of detached encounters, get off by internet porn, and find themselves acting out dangerously and compulsively in search of the next “high” tightrope act that never ends up satisfying anyway. Nominations should have included Best Director Steve McQueen, Best Actor Michael Fassbender, Best Film Editing.
Love Crime (France) – An unusual and highly stimulating thriller from France about office backstabbing. Kristen Scott Thomas is the boss Christine who takes credit for everything, Ludivine Sagnier is the protégé Isabelle who wants her acknowledgement for her work. These are highly educated rich girls with sociopathic instincts. Just when you think you’ve caught up to their schemes that they strike on each other, it turns out they are three moves ahead of you. Not that you can’t follow. With sly flashback editing, the past shot in black & white, you catch on the diabolical genius of Isabelle’s revenge tactics. Nominations should have included Best Director Alain Corneau, Best Actress Ludivine Sagnier, Best Supporting Actress Kristen Scott Thomas, Best Adapted Screenplay by Corneau and Nathalie Carter, Best Film Editing.
Melancholia – The end of the world art film was certainly a directorial vision by Lars von Trier, but key performances have also been overlooked. If there’s a reason why it will never have wide span connection with audiences is that it’s a look at rich and chronically unhappy people at the end of the world. Think about it. Watching happy and generous people face the proposition of planetary death would have been conventional. But to see von Trier’s perspective of unhappy people incapable of finding alleviating solace has a haunting sting to it – you’re glad you’re not them. Nominations should have included Best Director Lars von Trier, Best Actress Kirsten Dunst, Best Supporting Actor Kiefer Sutherland, Best Cinematography.
Cedar Rapids – An adult comedy that is a happy one. “The Hangover Part II” was the most disappointing movie of the year (how could it have possibly pleased anyone?) but under the radar was this little movie about a little insurance man, Tim Lippe, from Brown Valley played by Ed Helms. He goes to the BIG CITY (!) of Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a business convention. He has never met a black person before, he bashfully asks out a hooker for a cup of coffee, he doesn’t get that that a blonde colleague is trying to get him into bed, and rarely has he ever partied with alcohol. Then he meets John C. Reilly as client poacher Dean Ziegler, who drinks, dances disco-slam style, and speaks in intangible riddles that are little philosophical crackpots. Nominations should have included Best Supporting Actor John C. Reilly and Best Original Screenplay by Phil Johnston.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – One of the ultimate race against the clock thrillers, almost always giving you something fantastic to look at. The whizzy excitement never rests in what is easily the best of Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies. And it has a scene in Dubai at Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, where the movie cuts back and forth between floors during simultaneous situations. Nominations should have included Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing.
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Simply one of the great acting performances in the art of despair. Tilda Swinton plays a mom who is eternally damned, having conceived the most impossibly evil child whom from the age of four, is already looking to make mom’s life hell. By 16, the kid is lethal. Nominations should have included Best Actress Tilda Swinton, Best Adapted Screenplay by Lynne Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear.
Tabloid and Project Nim – Two of the most entertaining documentaries in years both failed to earn nominations in favor of other typical quasi-topical entries that sealed the deal. The former about the most outrageous scandal of a sex-crazed woman of 1977, the latter about an experiment in the 1970’s of a chimp living in a New York brownstone amongst humans learning advanced sign language. Two docs that you might actually be interested in seeing, as opposed to the Academy’s documentary branch whom are oblivious.
Some of the acceptance speeches were above average, perhaps rousing. Billy Crystal came up with his best Oscar nominee song melody yet – even when he sang “‘The Tree of Life’ confused God” – it was funny. The 84rd Academy Awards celebrated “The Artist” with 5 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Michel Hazanavicius, Best Actor Jean Dujardin, Original Score and Costume Design. Dujardin didn’t do any tap-dancing on his way to the podium, but he did shoot off a smart enough quip in thanking Douglas Fairbanks. “The Artist” is the first silent film to win since the very first Oscars in 1928 when “Wings” won.
“Hugo” by Martin Scorsese won in many of the technical categories including Cinematography, Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Art Direction. As for me, I wouldn’t place this effort as any of Scorsese’s best 15 films, but so be it.
I predicted Christopher Plummer (“Beginners) and Octavia Spencer (“The Help) to win the supporting acting categories. Best Supporting Actor is usually one of my favorite categories, but this year the nominees list was flat, boring, unexciting. Plummer was the best among the weak field of nominees, and at 82, becomes the oldest ever Oscar winner. To my humble reaction, he gave the most moving speech of the night. “You’re only two years older than me, he said to the statuette, “Where have you been all my life?” My greater prediction that came true is that Spencer would be ludicrously crying buckets over her win and stammer her way through her speech.
One month before the Oscars, I predicted Meryl Streep to win the award but changed my forecast as the telecast approached. It’s an extraordinary performance in a movie that is inadequate in every other way. “The Iron Lady” is only worth seeing because of Streep.
During these telecasts, I don’t just merely scratch my head. I bellow out “Come on, goddammit!” many, many times – my neighbors prepare for aftershocks. This year, to my surprise, I more or less saw what was coming. But really was baffled that “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” didn’t win for Best Visual Effects, losing to “Hugo.” Biggest delight was seeing “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” win for Best Film Editing. I didn’t think the Academy was that smart. Then again, “Tattoo” lost for Sound Mixing. Another gripe for “Hugo.”
The night’s biggest losers were “The Tree of Life, “The Descendants” and “Moneyball.” To explain, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was not an unpardonable loser because it was never expected to win in the first place. “The Tree of Life” has the most cult fans, but was likely going to get snubbed for Best Picture, Director and Cinematography in the same way that Kubrick films were snubbed. “The Descendants” is a big, memorable loser even though it won for Best Adapted Screenplay. Two months ago, it was the front-runner for Best Picture, Director, and Actor, George Clooney, before “The Artist” juggernaut took over. And “Moneyball,” a six-time loser because I think it probably ran second or third in votes for every category it was up for.
However, “Midnight in Paris” won exactly what it was expected and should have won for, Best Original Screenplay for Woody Allen. The award is more for fans and aficionados who want justice for the film’s legacy, more than for Woody who doesn’t show up to award shows.
The list of winners:Best Picture: “The Artist” (WINNER) Best Actress: Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady” (WINNER) Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, “The Artist” (WINNER) Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist” (WINNER) Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, “Beginners” (WINNER) Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, “The Help” (WINNER) Writing (Original Screenplay): “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen (WINNER) Writing (Adapted Screenplay): “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (WINNER) Music (Original Song): “Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets”: Music and lyrics by Bret McKenzie (WINNER) Music (Original Score): “The Artist,” Ludovic Bource (WINNER) Visual Effects: “Hugo,” Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman and Alex Henning (WINNER) Animated Feature: “Rango” (WINNER) Documentary (Feature): “Undefeated,” TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Richard Middlemas (WINNER) Sound Mixing: “Hugo,” Tom Fleischman and John Midgley (WINNER) Sound Editing: “Hugo,” Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty (WINNER) Film Editing: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (WINNER) Foreign Language Film: “A Separation,” Iran (WINNER) Makeup: “The Iron Lady,” Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland (WINNER) Costume Design: “The Artist,” Mark Bridges (WINNER) Cinematography: “Hugo,” Robert Richardson (WINNER) Art Direction: “Hugo,” Production Design: Dante Ferretti, Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo (WINNER)
KIM NOVAK OFFENDED BY ‘THE ARTIST’
Kim Novak made one great movie: “Vertigo” (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock. One of my top ten films of all time. But I could have certainly lived without her most recent statement, at age 73. She pulled out an ad in Variety and made a stink. This is how it read:
FROM THE DESK OF
I WANT TO REPORT A RAPE.
I FEEL AS IF MY BODY—OR, AT LEAST MY BODY OF WORK—HAS BEEN VIOLATED BY THE MOVIE, “THE ARTIST.”
The film could and should have been able to stand on its own without depending upon Bernard Herrmann’s score from Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO to provide it more drama. Much of VERTIGO‘s music was written during, not after, filming—that was the way Hitchcock worked. The Love Theme was woven musically in with the puzzle pieces of the storyline. In my opinion, the combined efforts of the composer, director, Jimmy Stewart, and myself were all violated.
I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN SPEAK NOW. They didn’t need to use what I consider to be one of the most important love scenes in motion picture history by playing the VERTIGO score and using emotions it engenders as if it were their own. Even though they gave a small credit to Bernard Herrmann at the end, I believe this to be cheating, at the very least. Shame on them!
IT IS MORALLY WRONG FOR THE ARTISTRY OF OUR INDUSTRY TO USE AND ABUSE FAMOUS PIECES OF WORK TO GAIN ATTENTION AND APPLAUSE FOR OTHER THAN WHAT THEY WERE INTENDED. IT IS ESSENTIAL TO SAFEGUARD OUR SPECIAL BODIES OF WORK FOR POSTERITY, WITH THEIR ORIGINAL AND INDIVIDUAL IDENTITIES INTACT AND PROTECTED.
Postscript: “The Artist” director Michael Hazanavicius responded with press release statement of his own. “‘The Artist’ was made as a love letter to cinema, and grew out of my (and all of my cast and crew’s) admiration and respect for movies throughout history. It was inspired by the work of Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau and Wilder. I love Bernard Hermann and his music has been used in many different films and I’m very pleased to have it in mine. I respect Kim Novak greatly and I’m sorry to hear she disagrees.”
I agree. If nothing else, when I heard the “Vertigo” music in “The Artist” it brought up a wonderful, sumptuous reverie for me. Bernard Herrmann’s music was used respectively, and romantically. Now Kimmy, err Kim, “The Artist” is the last movie you should be complaining about. Hollywood is a place selling its soul for a quick buck with such pandering riffraff as “The Devil Inside” and “The Darkest Hour.”
BTW, cribbing music from a classic into a modern film isn’t the first time it’s been done. Three of the most memorable was when Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” (1977) took music from Disney’s “Pinocchio” (1940) for his climax, the horror film “Re-Animator” (1985) about the walking dead took Herrmann’s music from “Psycho” (1960), and Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1” took Herrmann’s music from “Twisted Nerve” (1968). When I heard these, I spooged myself silly with movie love.
MICHAEL BAY MAKES SOMETHING BESIDES ‘TRANSFORMERS?’ (SATIRE)
Michael Bay has made three “Transformers” films in a row since 2007 and based on box office returns it doesn’t appear that the series will stop anytime soon. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I look forward, out of lunatic curiosity, to see what Bay can do besides movies where gigantic machines collide. Does Bay think that anything one town size and character driven (yeah, right! not with him!) is too small? His refusal to acknowledge the redundancy of this series is a sign of creative bankruptcy. But wait, he has recently proposed, in press releases, a $20 million dollar budget film called “Pain & Gain” about bodybuilders turned bank robbers (goin’ back to his roots with what he would consider a shoestring budget). In case that falls through, I actually have some hybrid ideas for him that could be action heavy but with potentially more “complex” stories:
“Tron meets “eXistenZ” – Garrett Hedlund goes into the virtual world to rescue doll-face video game designer Rosie Huntington-Whiteley who has gone under a fugue state having forgotten that she has left the real world. Hedlund fights replicants on the arenda grid until he is able to find his girl and convince her that she’s gotta escape back to Earth with him.
“Unstoppable” meets “28 Weeks Later” – Denzel Washington and Chris Pine on a runaway train with a busted locomotive, but that’s okay, because they must defend themselves against carnivorous zombies that try to jump the train to skin them and drink their blood. Jason Bateman, Scott Caan, Tyrese Gibson, Ed Helms, Tim McGraw, Jeremy Renner as commuters turned zombie avengers. Meagan Goode and Blake Lively are the cargo babes. Dan Aykroyd is the U.S President in a rare dramatic role.
“The Time Machine” meets “Death Race” – You get a H.G. Wells type from the late 1800’s except make him into a tetchy bad guy who nooses colleagues from his era, straps them into the future, then plunks them in a deadly car race where they are up against an evil Jason Statham as derby driver Sir Crank-Frankenstein. Ewan McGregor is H.G. Wells and Gerard Butler is an 1800’s chap now death-racing for his life. Penelope Jimenez (in her film debut) plays the babe riding shotgun.
“Whip It” meets “2012” – Remember that Drew Barrymore-directed film with Ellen Page as Babe Ruthless? Well, Roland Emmerich style ahem Michael Bay style, the world falls apart due to earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, hurricanes and tsunamis. The only way to escape it is to outrun it, except running is going to be too slow. So Babe (now Evangeline Lilly) and her hot girlfriends have to rollerblade across America with the Earth cracking and splitting away behind them. Tara Reid is the first to die from falling into a lava abyss, Anastasia Ashley is the hottest surfer-rollerblader of the lot.
“Predator” meets “Up” – An octogenarian (Michael Douglas) becomes one of the last survivors on the planet when he invents a balloon-energy dirigible that hovers in the sky. Thousands of alien-warriors with high-tech gear devise iniquitous ways to take down the arsenal-loaded dirigible. Throw in some retired air jockeys (Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Earl Jones, Estella Warren) to blast these invaders occupying the ground. Adrian Grenier plays Douglas’ son and babe Louise Bourgoin comes along for the ride.
“The Bucket List” meets “District 9” – Set in the future, Clint Eastwood and Danny Glover are old codgers with terminal cancer who embark on one last adventure before they kick the bucket: vacation to the alien-prawn district in Johannesburg where, for kicks, they can blend in and cajole with the residents. But an alien revolt gets way extreme, and so our two dying martyrs must laser gun blast these defiant aliens to hell. Jaime Bergman plays the scientist, and Meagan Tandy plays her nubile assistant.
“War of the Worlds” meets “Midnight in Paris” – Owen and Luke Wilson transport back in time to the 1920’s where they meet historic legends that include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Salvodor Dali Buñuel. This time something goes wrong with the time-space continuum and outer space tripods and tentacles aliens invade the Earth. Now the world’s greatest artists must get creative to lead a revolution – led by Ernest Hemingway – in a fight for the world. Liv Tyler, Gemma Atkinson and Thandie Newton (as Josephine Baker) play the babes without the flapper haircuts.
“There Will Be Blood” meets “The Hills Have Eyes” – Daniel Day-Lewis is an 1800’s oil tycoon who has to fend off against mutant cannibals who intrude on his drilling wells with a miner’s axe for a weapon. The surviving mutants decide to retreat 10,000 feet underground, but Day-Lewis ain’t satisfied. He invents rocket grenades that he uses to annihilate the mutants down hiding towards the center of the earth. Blowing the core of the Earth off its axis by accident makes the planet go off course its orbit and towards the sun. Now Day-Lewis has to invent an oil bomb to make Earth rotate the other way so it goes back on course in proper orbit. Bijou Phillips and Kelly Hu play the uncharacteristically hot mutants.
“Apocalypto” meets “The Abyss” – Underwater beings abduct Rudy Youngblood and Benjamin Bratt and force them into a gladiatorial obstacle course spearheaded by water princess Camilla Belle. Upon observing their bravery, the water princess sees that her captives are more human than her own underwater species, thus leading to an overthrow of the King (Brendan McGleeson) and the entire amphibious world that is keeping resuscitation of post-radiation Earth a secret.
“Jingle all the Way” meets “The Black Hole” – Remember that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie where he holiday shops hectically for a Turbo-Man for his toy-needy son? Well this time, Dad has to space voyage all the way to the Black Hole to retrieve a special levitating asteroid that his whiny son wants for Christmas. Matthew McConaughey plays the space vessel captain, Armond Assante as the lieutenant who goes crazy and tries to overthrow command so he can guide the ship into the deepest point of no return vortex. Paulina Flores, Elsa Benitez and Natalie Martinez play the babes on board (Schwarzenegger’s nurse, cook and a maid).
THE BEST FILMS OF WOODY ALLEN
Would it have been more timely if I wrote an appreciation article of Woody Allen’s best films a month ago when “Midnight in Paris” first came out? If I had, I felt it might have been sycophant overkill since I had already gushed indefatigable admiration. Seven weeks at the box office his film still stands inside the box office top ten and is on track within days of becoming the highest grossing film that he has ever made, surpassing “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Word of mouth and staying power – why? – simply because it’s a marvelous film. It’s his best in 25 years, I think.
Update: As of July 12, 2011, “Midnight in Paris” reached the $40.2 million tally, officially overtaking 1986′s “Hannah and Her Sisters.” “Midnight” closed at $56.8 million.
Now it’s my turn to weigh in on his best of 41 films. A few years ago this article would be impertinent in face of his slump. But let’s look back in joy at what has been great and essential of his work. I am refraining from ordering my preference because then it becomes an exercise of @#!*% at why I chose a title one notch above the other and another down low when you think it should be way high yada yada yada. My Woody Allen recommendations, or top ten alphabetized… heck let’s make it a dozen:
Annie Hall (1977) – Okay, this one really is my favorite of all of his and one of my 20 favorite films of all-time. It’s a nervous romance Woody has with Diane Keaton, but the screenplay and direction has the wittiest and most wonderfully spontaneous detours, asides and insights. Woody never was satisfied with it because his original cut was more than an hour longer and was about his character’s many loves, but he cut it to concentrate more on Keaton (the original title was “Anhedonia”). Oscar winner for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Actress.
Bananas (1971) – Flat out hysterical farce. Nebbish New Yorker Woody Allen travels to a South American country to chase a girl, Louise Lasser. He unwittingly becomes a freedom fighter for the people in the resistance against an oppressed dictatorship and ends up appointed new President. Later, the United States wants him for crimes of treason.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994) – One of his most sumptuously crafted films. It’s the 1920’s and playwright John Cusack is thrilled with getting his newest work produced on Broadway but apprehensive that it is being bankrolled by gangsters. Cusack is elated nonetheless that he’s got diva Dianne Wiest for a lead role, but rankled that the gangster wants his dimbulb moll Jennifer Tilly cast in a supporting part. Best is Chazz Palminteri as the moll’s bodyguard who reveals a hidden gift for playwriting.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) – Two stories of two men, similar in content of discreet guilt, divided into comedy and drama with impeccable finesse. Martin Landau is anophthalmologist with infidelity problems: he must plot against not his wife but his mistress. Woody Allen is in a doomed marriage in knowing that his wife despises him so he courts a friendship with Mia Farrow but consciously refrains from acting out his loins.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) – Literate, intersecting plot comedy-drama. In a large ensemble cast that bookends with Thanksgiving holiday dinners, three sisters (Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Barbara Hershey) sort through midlife changes of heart with the partners – and lifestyles – they have selected. I’m glued to Michael Caine’s work as Farrow’s husband, quite vexed, as the adulterer who falls in love with the sister played by Hershey.
Interiors (1978) – The starkest and most successful of his Ingmar Bergman-esque dramas, and only one of five movies ever to make me cry. Three grown daughters, facing relationship gallows of their own, observe their mother (Geraldine Page, heartbreaking) face a divorce beseeched by her longtime egocentric husband (E.G. Marshall).
Love and Death (1975) – Flat out hysterical farce but this one is on the intellectual side, swiping the work of Russian lit by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and finding irresistible idiot humor in it. Set during the nineteenth century Napoleonic Wars, Woody Allen survives military duty and is elevated to spy, and then must assassinate Napolean Bonaparte along with the aid of love interest Diane Keaton.
Manhattan (1979) – The apex of first-class black & white cinematography. This was the uncomfortable but severely honest portrait of Woody Allen in love with Mariel Hemingway, a girl in her late teens. His ex-wife Meryl Streep is now a self-righteous lesbian, his new friend Diane Keaton is intellectually equate and appealing in more compatible terms. A brilliant comedy-drama somehow despite the scenario perversity.
Match Point (2005) – This merciless morality tale is complimentary to Woody’s earlier “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Tennis pro Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) jumps aboard a social climbing opportunity by linking up with the sister of a good friend (Emily Mortimer as the girl, Matthew Goode as the good friend). His caveat is falling for struggling actress and family friend Nola (Scarlett Johansson), carrying his child and bolstering an ultimatum on him. How much does luck play into our lives when sorting out our worst played out impulses?
Midnight in Paris (2011) – This is a screenplay that is creatively divine and thoroughly ingenious. Owen Wilson, likely to be underrated come awards season, is integral in bringing an ecstatic and sweet-natured character to the screen as Gil the screenwriter, vacationing in Paris with his shallow fiancé Rachel McAdams. It’s not just magic, it’s wily imagination, that Gil somehow gets transported back to the 1920’s after dark for several hours so he can hang – and get inspired by – the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Luis Buñuel, Pablo Picasso, T.S Eliot and Gertrude Stein.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) – The high concept was done before in Buster Keaton’s 1924 silent “Sherlock Jr.” – the greatest of all silent films – and done again atrociously in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1993 flick “Last Action Hero.” Movie character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) literally walks off the movie screen to join the real world when smitten by movie devotee Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a New Jersey waitress trapped in an abusive marriage. Funniest paradox is when movie actor Gil Shepherd flies in from Hollywood in attempt to negotiate with his own fictional creation.
Radio Days (1987) – Affectionate nostalgia of the Golden Age of Radio before television took over America’s family rooms. This is a glowing and beautifully reconstructed old New York City, but Woody Allen’s wisest move was to make it an episodic tour through his fictional remembrances of growing up with his family paralleled with the star personalities who bloomed on the airwaves.
My next eight picks – to round it to an even twenty – that just miss the top list would include “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984); “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996); “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex… But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972); “Husbands and Wives” (1992); “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993); “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995); “Sleeper” (1973); “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999).
Best Method Acting Performance in a Woody Allen film:
Sean Penn in “Sweet and Lowdown.”
THE FABULOUS JEFF BRIDGES
Jeff Bridges won exclamatory praise for his work as Marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (DVD scheduled for June 7th) and it is a veritable fit in the hallmark of his career. I underrated it in my first review, complaining at the time that it dawdles. My original three-star review to me now seems unreasonable. Any film that had me talking with others about it for a lengthy amount of time, which happened persistently, following its release certainly deserves to be rated higher. Especially when conversation after conversation came up of just how incomparable Bridges is in the role of Rooster. What was obvious from the beginning was Bridges’ larger than life and idiosyncratic lawman, a cantankerous and eccentric coot with a croaky tobacco voice and a lumbering walk that emulated a whipped horse. A performance that great should elevate any film towards four-star merit.
Any actor with thirty years of good work will become a legend, and Bridges has some forty years under his belt. Three immediate thoughts should come to mind when Bridges’ name (in addition to Rooster) is brought up: Bridges as Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart” (2009) and the Best Actor Oscar that came with it; Jeff Lebowski in a bathrobe with a White Russian in hand in “The Big Lebowski;” and if your movie history goes back far enough, the callous, fresh-faced and misdirected Duane Jackson in the black & white “The Last Picture Show” (1971). His girlfriend in “Picture Show” is played by Cybill Shepherd who you can glimpse naked, but Bridges has ungainly problems unbuttoning her top in their first bedroom encounter.
Those are immediate thoughts, especially amongst movie fans and critics at large. But there are nearly two dozen others that any film fanatic should become familiar with. I could go on about his work in “Fat City” (1972), “Starman” (1984), “Jagged Edge” (1985), “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988), “The Fisher King” (1991), “Fearless” (1993), “Seabiscuit” (2003) or “The Door in the Floor” (2004) – eventually, for real, I will review all of them in depth. But there is one other that I feel is far more essential. One that should be in the top five ranks of his career best.
“The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989) is an absolutely essential film for the thoroughbred acting legend. Despite the black tuxes on the DVD jacket cover, do not confuse it for a gangster flick. This slice of life music-themed drama has been known more for Michelle Pfeiffer singing “Makin’ Whoopee” while slinking on top of a piano. Jeff Bridges, whose behavior is moody but smoldering anytime and all the time, is jazz pianist Jack Baker. Beau Bridges is the anal retentive older bro Frank Baker who manages the trio act. This mature drama especially for people who understand the music gig lifestyle, working in the after dark hours and roaming city to city.
“Baker Boys” is sexy in a plentitude of ways that have less to do with nudity but in ways that have to do with suggestion of the mind and the use of musical talent as foreplay. Getting “involved” is hot but it’s also a two-way riddle replete of games and attachment phobia. Bridges’ great performance isn’t one that showboats though – he doesn’t shout out to get our attention, he has you leaning in, inducing you to read his emotions in-between the wrinkles. He’s a guy that keeps his brainier qualities hidden so he can excusably mess around with uneducated women. Pfeiffer is a complicated sex kitten mix – tawdry but not dumb. The gifted but near-forgotten writer-director Steve Kloves keeps his film pitched at constant melancholy but with a swoony beat, and has a surprisingly enticing real people in a real world aura.
I will make a surprise comparison that you couldn’t possibly have foreseen coming. Jeff Bridges’ performance is very much like Jeremy Renner’s performance as Staff Sergeant William James in “The Hurt Locker.” You got it, one’s a melancholy music drama from the 80’s, and the other is an Iraq-set war film surrounding a bomb-disposal team. Well, the films are way, way different. Bridges and Renner though are alike.
Both are characters shielded by thick layers, both have impenetrable facades that hide their core personalities. You don’t know who either character really is for the first hour. You, as a viewer, have to go through deconstructing processes to chip away at their layers, waiting for the key unlocking moment that reveals a momentary vulnerability. The one that lets you finally gets you inside to what they’re thinking. These are not explosive performances, they are implosive ones. For most of these two films, Bridges and Renner conduct themselves in their own self-contained ways, rarely minding the people around them. Both heat up slowly before they blow their lids off. The only difference is that one character is more self-forgiving then the other. To me, this kind of character is more interesting than the ones that tell you everything about them in the opening five minutes.
************** ********** ****************************************************************** ********** *************