Post #100: Story So Far / Shots List / Index
MUSINGS AND PROBLEMS (SKIPPABLE)
Seven months and 100 posts (which is to say, 98 reviews) into this project, what have I learned? So far, mostly that I haven’t changed as much as I thought I had since the last time (2006-07) I went through a lot of these movies. That isn’t to say that there have been no surprises at all, but in general, I’m getting a strong self-validation thing where I was usually right the first time, and in fact in some cases those initial snap judgments have deepened.
So far I’m generally happy with the format of the blog being used although I’m sure that soon enough I’ll run into one hindrance or another — a movie that absolutely doesn’t deserve a five-paragraph review, for instance. I’m aware that I’m wordy and need editing, and that’s one of several reasons — that and the fear of the kind of sniping terrorism that negative reviewers of The Dark Knight Rises are enduring as we speak — that I’m so far loath to allow search engines to index this blog. I’m still really fucking insecure about it. Maybe that’ll change and maybe it won’t, but for now: while anyone who knows me in any context can easily figure out where it is and read it, this blog basically remains Our Little Secret.
The first thirteen weeks of SOC were devoted to screenings of the movies released from 2008-11 that I felt I’d most lamentably missed out on during a period of total ignorance — it was a crash course in recent literacy, you could say, and the rich pleasures of A Serious Man (my new choice for the best Coen brothers film), Exit Through the Gift Shop (which I’ve ultimately come to feel is one of the smartest feature-length documentaries ever made), Milk (one of the few great biopics in the Hollywood annals), 127 Hours, Up in the Air, Life During Wartime, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (sorry, haterz) were more than worth the annoyances of Inception, the glorious nothingness of The Tree of Life (even Malick can’t do Malickisms anymore), the adorable but schmaltzy and vaguely racist Slumdog Millionaire, and the disappointments of Rango and The Kids Are All Right, two well-meaning films that were finally as baffling and confused as any I’ve ever seen.
No, actually: all these months later, what stands out for me about that particular venture is how frustrated I was by a few of the films, those that came halfway to greatness and stopped short. The most egregious example is surely J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. Since viewing it I’ve watched one of its primary influences, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, for the first time in nearly twenty years, and I sadly found that the Abrams effort imitates and amplifies its predecessor in far more ways than I realized at the time. Both films contain elements of an aching, well-observed portrait of childhood, and both are derailed by what seem the now-obligatory features of Fun movies, or maybe of science fiction or children’s films in general — the injection of an artificial, faceless antagonism; and the plottiness and sense of purpose that ultimately takes over any sense of warmth and characterization. It’s maddening because there are things about Super 8 that I absolutely adored, and I wish I could recommend it more unreservedly. Two new films I subsequently reviewed, Winter’s Bone and Somewhere, have far less levity but still correct a number of Abrams’ indulgences, and the latter clinches Elle Fanning as one of the finest young actors working right now. But that makes it harder to give Abrams full credit for capturing the feeling of being a kid — Sofia Coppola and Debra Granik achieve that full-bore without pause or caveat. Granik’s film in particular is significant for solving the very problem Super 8 presents — it opens as a plotty neo-noir effort but is gradually overtaken by its emotions, characters, and atmospherics. Besides, despite Hollywood’s frequent denial of a form of childhood that exists outside of suburbia, these films both acknowledge a broader scope, and do so from the perspective, wonderfully, of young women.
Other massive issues that stunted what should have been great films: the unnecessary adult subplot of the horror-romance Let the Right One In (impressively, director Tomas Alfredson would correct every one of his errors here in his magnificent, streamlined follow-up Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); the distraction of the hackneyed, screenwriterly emotional arc from the pure nautralism of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married; the characterization shortcuts in Sylvain Chomet’s beautiful The Illusionist; the tonal shifts and apprehension in The Informant!; the overlength of Edgar Wright’s immensely charming Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (indeed, overlength has stymied every one of his movies thus far); and maybe more than anything, the half-baked storytelling, juvenilia, and flat third act of Bridesmaids, a purportedly revolutionary film that only succeeded when it reached past its unfortunate fixation upon women-get-to-act-like-the-giant-oafs-in-awful-movies-like-The-Hangover-and-therefore-this-is-feminism philosophy. I hoped to come away thinking that the last few years have provided innumerable treasures; instead my cynicism was validated, not least by the inability of so many modern films to surprise me. I thought Benjamin Button, Black Swan, Frost/Nixon, and The King’s Speech were enjoyable movies, but not one of them did anything I didn’t already expect it was going to when the curtain went up.
Maybe there’s something to be said for that kind of audience wish-fulfillment, but I’m happy to say that my subsequent explorations of new films from the current decade have proven that there is as much imagination and empathetic beauty possible in cinema now as ever. Though I’m sure there are masterpieces I’ve yet to see, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is to my mind the best movie of the last four years — certainly the strongest I’ve felt about a new release since Zodiac and Ratatouille or thereabouts; it was an intense pleasure to have the opportunity to see the film projected and to feel justified in thinking once again about a night at the movies as an Experience. We were able to enjoy this in our former cinematic backwoods of Wilmington, North Carolina as a direct result of the weekly public radio-sponsored event Cinematique, which brings arthouse movies to the gorgeous old Thalian Hall, offering up foreign and independent cinema to… well, to the aging liberal types who show up, some of whom — based on my interactions — are the senior citizen equivalent to scenesters: they seem to show up to see these weird movies basically to look bored and complain about them. So Melancholia, being a Lars von Trier film, attracted a fair number of spirited arguments in the lobby — and it has to be said that Cinematique knows their crowd, for they regularly counter-program adventurous films with the blandest of prestigious cinema, from My Afternoons with Marguerite to Hysteria to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Which is fine, and good for them.
But I’m grateful beyond measure to Cinematique for giving us a chance to see not just Melancholia but A Separation — a film I’m convinced will resonate for generations — and the underrated Footnote and the pleasing but overpraised The Kid with a Bike, all on beautiful 35mm film and looking glorious. Never thought I’d have the chance to see such esoteric movies on a first-run basis theatrically, and in fact I designed the entire interface of this blog under the assumption that I wouldn’t be able to do so. But I feel knowledgeable enough now to be able to say that 2011 was a pretty great year for movies — I’ll always be at least a year behind, I’m afraid (I’ve only seen one real actual 2012 movie so far and it’s July), but fuck, I even sort of liked Scorsese’s 2011 offering, the movie-preservation rant and oversized clock porn Hugo.
Other things that this blog has underlined for me about myself: I’m squeamish as fuck, and it eventually translates to anger. I was angry at Drive, more batshit irritated than I ever imagined I could be at something involving the deeply inoffensive and boring Ryan Gosling. The review I posted here managed to keep things somewhat rational, and I stand by my view that it’s a soulless exercise in empty stylistics and comes from a dark, world-hating place — and I will never forgive Nicholas Winding Refn for what he did to Albert Brooks in it — but I went out of my mind on Facebook and was deservedly schooled by a filmmaker friend who reminded me that I’m really not qualified to weigh in on ultraviolent films, perhaps especially those (like Drive, and actually The Dark Knight) that pretend there’s some great moral weight to the blood, gore, and destruction. But then again, I know that same friend considers Trier’s Antichrist to be shock-cinema trash. Is it a contradiction, then, that I loved Antichrist and actually can’t wait to see it again? To me, these two films couldn’t be more different in their approaches to violence and unpleasantness. I’d come away less shattered from enduring the worst parts of Antichrist all day long than I probably will when I watch The Wild Bunch again, certainly less than I was on revisiting Raging Bull.
Which brings us, indeed, to the AFI. I was not sure that re-initiating that so often openly loathed movie list as an inaugural project was a great idea, but I convinced myself that finally writing at length about Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, and even Lawrence of Arabia would help me lay a necessary bedrock in building some sort of a canon here. I wish I could run through it faster, though I’m going awfully fast as it is: although as of right now we’ve only posted reviews of the first 20 films (plus a few Oscar winners down the list), I’m in the middle of watching #27 as we speak and I’ve completed reviews of 24. Currently I’m roughly a month ahead on all reviews for the blog, and by the end of the year I hope to be about three months ahead, a lead time that will increase exponentially as the months roll by.
So to run this down quickly, the upper reaches of the AFI list are embodied almost exclusively by either films I saw so young that my opinion has been set in stone for a decade or more, or movies I saw for the first time when running down the list’s gaps five years ago. Of the latter, Singin’ in the Rain has only increased in my estimation — convinced it contained some filler in 2006, I now believe just about every moment is perfect — and I still commit the cinephile crime of feeling as if I would love The General even more if it didn’t ask me to sympathize unreservedly with the Confederacy in the totally inappropriate framework of a slapstick comedy. I paid enough attention this time to actually follow the plot of Lawrence of Arabia but didn’t end up liking it much more; and The Godfather is still bloated and distasteful to me, and that alone likely disqualifies me from talking about movies in the minds of most folks — my feelings about Star Wars undoubtedly don’t help.
But a few mildly interesting things did happen. The Searchers, the most celebrated of all westerns, suddenly came to life for me and I now add to the chorus of praise for it; I can only guess that aging in and of itself brought the immense yearning of it to the surface. I had written off Raging Bull and On the Waterfront as good films that merely didn’t speak to me; now they both appear to me wrongheaded and, in the former case, so absolutely awful and miserable that I barely survived the screening. This serves to prove something about the aforementioned squeamishness, in this case a squeamishness against meaninglessly brutish attitudes toward women. I also found the political subtext of On the Waterfront much harder to ignore now, and I can’t think of a compelling reason to see either film; but of course, thank heavens for the rest of the internet and the scope of movie criticism, because there are plenty of alternate viewpoints. Some guy on the internet who doesn’t even publicize his blog not liking Raging Bull is the definition of a non-event.
But things aren’t always so black and white. The two top-ranking Billy Wilders on the AFI list are Sunset Blvd. and Some Like It Hot. After all these years, I still find myself struggling a bit with both. They’re brilliantly acerbic and witty films, sure, and Sunset Blvd is so much more besides. And in terms of iconography, few American pictures can compete. But there’s that nagging sense that Some Like It Hot, as audaciously intelligent as its dialogue and ingenious situations are, just doesn’t have enough spark to justify its golden reputation — nearly, but not quite. I grudgingly took away the A+ I had almost equally grudgingly afforded the film years ago, but I’m still not sure which grade it really deserves. The same is true of Sunset; right now it’s been given an A+, but I have enough reservations about its attitude toward aging starlet Norma Desmond and its spirit and attitude in general that this may change. Meanwhile, It’s a Wonderful Life nearly received an upgrade… but as moving as it is, it still seems just the tiniest bit broad and lacking in detail. Frank Capra wanted to make the story of everyone, but the best parts of the film are those that are most singular and idiosyncratic.
As for 2001, and then Vertigo and Rebecca and the other Hitchcock films reviewed herein so far… I always wanted to talk about Hitchcock (and Kubrick) at length but I always knew it’d be incredibly difficult, and it has been. To get the reviews of Psycho and 2001 written I had to literally lock myself in the bedroom and compose stream-of-consciousness. I have a seriously hard time articulating why I love things. But I hope it’s been OK so far.
Inevitably, the Best Picture Oscar winners project has been the more interesting venture for me, because there are so many movies which took home the statue that I’d never seen, starting with the very first winner, Wings. Of the first 28 BP winners, I’d seen 12, and to experience the rest was fascinating, in particular those whose reputations have not survived the years. The best of the first 28 Oscar winners is either Casablanca or The Best Years of Our Lives, and the worst is handily Going My Way, which I hated so much I had to scatter it over several nights in ten-minute increments (before this blog, I’d have simply turned it off, so think of this as my mobile masochism). Of those I hadn’t seen before, the best — and sole true shock — was Mrs. Miniver, which I’d love everyone to take a look at, though I was genuinely caught off guard very recently by another winner. I won’t reveal it except to say it’s often (usually?) considered the worst movie ever to take the award home, but I thought it was a cracking good time and preferred it substantially to the film that everyone posits was “supposed” to win the same year (which, coincidentally, I am watching right now).
So far, disregarding theatrical screenings, we’ve had two films I was unable to track down on DVD or in acceptably high-quality streaming format: the Ealing Studios horror anthology Dead of Night (which I’d wanted to see for years and did like, though it only becomes truly as disturbing as you’d hope for at the conclusion) and the 1933 Oscar winner, Cavalcade, which I found on VHS! Though it’s been pressed on DVD, it’s only available in a large $400 boxed set. It’s also awful and my recommendation would be not to seek it out unless you’re doing the same thing I’m doing (for some reason).
All Quiet on the Western Front might be the only movie seen for this blog that I already loved and came away loving significantly more. I try not to use this phrase, but it’s a jaw-dropping piece of work.
The Randall Library at UNCW and Netflix have both proven boons to getting all this done and watched, and I’ve managed to become completely unnecessarily anal about obtaining and watching the films in order, because why not I guess (and also OCD). Netflix Streaming finally brought me to a film I’d wanted to see for years, Fielder Cook’s film of the Rod Serling script Patterns, and it did not disappoint, nor did one of my big Ealing gaps, The Lavender Hill Mob — but Netflix didn’t have that one, on disc or streaming, so for it we ventured to the good old library. Thank heavens for them, right?
Sorry for going on like this. This stuff is my hobby — I love thinking and writing about music, seriously, and I’m probably far better at that, but the movie stuff just really sparks me — and I’m having a grand time with it. Maybe I’ll have more to say about the State of Cinema or whatever next time. And I really must add some links to movie blogs in the sidebar there — if you’re curious, I really like IndieWire’s The Playlist, Glenn Kenny’s Typepad blog, and Mike D’Angelo’s Listen Eggroll. Oh, and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s anthologizing of his old reviews is essential, and it’s interesting when he chimes in on a new film that he loves (Bernie) or hates (Drive).
[Edit:] Something I meant to incorporate here before and forgot. Remaining Best Picture winners that I have never seen:
Tom Jones (1963)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Ordinary People (1980)
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Out of Africa (1985)
The Last Emperor (1987)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
The English Patient (1996)
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
The Artist (2011)
But, caveat: it’s been at least a decade since I last saw Around the World in Eighty Days, Gigi, Ben-Hur, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Rocky, Amadeus, Dances with Wolves, Forrest Gump, and Titanic, so these ought to be relatively fresh experiences. (In fact, on the other side, the same is true of To Kill a Mockingbird, American Graffiti, Cabaret, and probably a couple others on the AFI list.)
Have now seen, but reviews not posted yet:
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
MY TEN FAVORITE SHOTS IN ANY MOVIE EVER FOR REAL
Wanted to offer some sort of frivolous list for the milestone post and after mentioning how much I love the wedding shot in The Best Years of Our Lives for that review, I thought it’d be interesting to throw this together. I’ve always tried to emphasize the visual element of the movies I’ve written about here, because I think movie writing forgets about that all too often — that’s the reason I care about film, the reason I think people watch films. My goal with the stills I’ve used has been to make you want to watch the film in question if you haven’t (though I hasten to add, the reviews here are generally written assuming you’ve already seen the movie, one reason I’m trying to move away from Holden-style plot summaries, and of course I don’t use spoiler tags) — even if I didn’t like the film. The sole exceptions are movies in which I couldn’t use the stills I wanted (Hugo, A Separation, Cavalcade, etc.) and Gentleman’s Agreement, in which the stills I used are meant as a TOTALLY HIDDEN SECRET OMG criticism.
Anyway, this is likely a flawed list — I ran over my list of favorite films and did it from memory, throwing in stuff I remembered from the movies I’ve reviewed here thus far. I’ll of course give it another stab in the future, but: I’m 90% sure about the top three. Should I post them in ascending or descending order? Um… Also, scroll over the image for the name of the movie. (Unless it’s a video, in which case… you’ll figure it out.)
Keep in mind, this is shots, not scenes. Whole different matter.
(1975, Stanley Kubrick)
(1964, Richard Lester)
(1973, Terrence Malick)
(1928, King Vidor)
(1946, Alfred Hitchcock)
(1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
(1946, William Wyler)
(1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
[How I wish I could find a Youtube clip or GIF of this! The rains fall over the leaf as the nuns depart, ringing out the larger death of colonialism. Overwhelming end to an overwhelming movie.]
INDEX OF POSTS SO FAR
[If you want this alphabetically, you can use the Movie Guide above; if you want it chronologically, you can use the categories at right.]
1. introductory post
2. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, Banksy) [hr]
3. [not yet posted publicly]
4. Up in the Air (2009, Jason Reitman) [hr]
5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008, David Fincher) [r]
6. [not yet posted publicly]
7. Rango (2011, Gore Verbinski) [-]
8. Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan) [c]
9. [not yet posted publicly]
10. Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) [r]
11. Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (2010, Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara) [r]
12. Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig) [r]
13. [not yet posted publicly]
14. The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper) [r]
15. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) [A+]
16. Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle) [-]
17. The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick) [NO]
18. Life During Wartime (2009, Todd Solondz) [hr]
19. Moon (2009, Duncan Jones) [r]
20. Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson) [r]
21. The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow) [r]
22. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, Edgar Wright) [r]
23. Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock) [A+]
24. A Serious Man (2009, Joel & Ethan Coen) [hr]
25. Whatever Works (2009, Woody Allen) [r]
26. Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami) [-]
27. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010, Woody Allen) [hr]
28. Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant) [hr]
29. The Informant! (2009, Steven Soderbergh) [r]
30. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier) [A+]
31. Frost/Nixon (2008, Ron Howard) [r]
32. 127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle) [hr]
33. Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese) [r]
34. The Kids Are All Right (2010, Lisa Cholodenko) [-]
35. Dead of Night (1945, Cavalcanti / Charles Crichton / Basil Dearden / Robert Hamer) [r]
36. The Illusionist (2010, Sylvain Chomet) [r]
37. Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams) [r]
38. Rachel Getting Married (2008, Jonathan Demme) [-]
39. Inside Job (2010, Charles Ferguson) [r]
40. Patterns (1956, Fielder Cook) [hr]
41. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola) [-]
42. Wings (1927, William A. Wellman) [r]
43. The Broadway Melody (1929, Harry Beaumont) [-]
44. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone) [A+]
45. Cimarron (1931, Wesley Ruggles) [c]
46. Grand Hotel (1932, Edmund Goulding) [r]
47. Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz) [A+]
48. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese) [c]
49. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly) [A+]
50. Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming) [A+]
51. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean) [c]
52. Cavalcade (1933, Frank Lloyd) [c]
53. A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi) [hr]
54. It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra) [A+]
55. Mutiny on the Bounty (1936, Frank Lloyd) [r]
56. Drive (2011, Nicholas Winding Refn) [NO]
57. Meek’s Cutoff (2010, Kelly Reichardt) [r]
58. Antichrist (2009, Lars von Trier) [hr]
59. The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard) [-]
60. Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg) [A+]
61. The Life of Emile Zola (1937, William Dieterle) [r]
62. You Can’t Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra) [r]
63. Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock) [A+]
64. How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford) [c]
65. Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler) [hr]
66. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) [A+]
67. The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming) [A+]
68. Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey) [NO]
69. The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder) [r]
70. City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin) [A+]
71. The Ghost Writer (2010, Roman Polanski) [r]
72. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, Charles Crichton) [hr]
73. The Searchers (1956, John Ford) [hr]
74. Star Wars (1977, George Lucas) [c]
75. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock) [A+]
76. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler) [A+]
77. Footnote (2011, Joseph Cedar) [hr]
78. Winter’s Bone (2010, Debra Granik) [hr]
79. [not yet posted publicly]
80. Shortbus (2006, John Cameron Mitchell) [r]
81. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 92010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul) [NO]
82. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan) [c]
83. Somewhere (2010, Sofia Coppola) [hr]
84. [not yet posted publicly]
85. Hamlet (1948, Laurence Olivier) [r]
86. [not yet posted publicly]
87. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick) [A+]
88. Sunset Blvd. (1950, Billy Wilder) [A+]
89. The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols) [A+]
90. The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman) [hr]
91. Carlos (2010, Olivier Assayas) [r]
92. On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan) [-]
93. [not yet posted publicly]
94. Gods and Monsters (1998, Bill Condon) [r]
95. [not yet posted publicly]
96. [forthcoming: All the King’s Men]
97. [not yet posted publicly]
98. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra) [hr]
99. [not yet posted publicly]