my top ten movies of 2011

Better late than never…

The major reason it took me so long to finally compile my own list was that so many of the major releases (the critically acclaimed ones) took until 2012 to reach Athens.  So there.

I need to make some qualifications to the following list.  They are listed in order, Hugo and The Guard were the most fun I had at the movies all year, the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce would make the very top of my list but I cut it out because it’s cheating, Drive almost made my #10 spot but not even its seductive style could make me forgive its stupidity, and the greatest movies I watched all year were older titles.  I’m no movie crank always yearning for the good old days.  It was a pretty good year for cinema, but nothing I watched in 2011 was as good as revisiting Rio Bravo or Only Angels Have Wings or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or seeing The Big Sleep on the big screen for the first time.  But there were moments in Hugo, The Tree of Life, and Mysteries of Lisbon that made me think and see movies in a new way.  They altered in their own distinctive ways my perceptions of what the medium was still capable of.  That’s pretty great and you really can’t ask for anything more special than that.

Also, the most overrated movie of 2011 is Lars von Trier’s MelancholiaYou can read my original Flagpole review here.

Now… onward!

1.  Hugo–dir: Martin Scorsese; cast:  Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moritz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law.

Martin Scorsese surprised everyone and directed a 3D kids movie.  To say too much about the plot would ruin the many surprises in it, but Hugo is essentially a glorious fantasy, a mystery, and a lovingly heartfelt, moving tribute to the motion picture and the power of storytelling itself.  What it’s not is a simpleminded nostalgia trip.  Scorsese honors the past and somehow accomplishes it without coming off as reactionary.  He and his fellow craftspeople utilize today’s most advanced cinematic tools and techniques to conjure up a Paris and a time that never existed quite like this.  I can’t stand the way the majority of modern films use the 3D process.  This film, however, is a wonderful example of the spatial and visual possibilities it offers a filmmaker with a true artistic sense.  Pure joy this was.

2.  The Guard–dir: John Michael McDonagh; cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, David Wilmot, Fionnula Flanagan, Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong.

“You know, I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart.”

I don’t think I enjoyed myself more at a movie all year than when I watched director/writer John Michael McDonagh’s feature debut.  Like his brother, playwright and film director Martin, McDonagh has a deft way with dialogue, he’s equipped with a savage wit, and he incisively knows how to undercut stereotypes and clichés with a casually detonated word or by capturing an actor’s spot on reaction shot.  This is breezy and riotously funny stuff.  It’s almost too laid-back for its own good, however, which offsets how brilliant much of it is.  It’s one part ’80s buddy cop movie, mixed with the gritty hilarity of crime writers like Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, and Joe Lansdale, and outfitted in the balls-out stylization of a vintage spaghetti Western movie, The Guard makes for one twisted and anarchic concoction.  There were undoubtedly more ambitious movies released in 2011 (The Tree of Life; Melancholia; Margaret), so if you’re looking to figure out the mysteries of the universe and your not-so-important place in it, you might want to move on.  If you’re looking for some laughs and a lot of heart, though, and want something far removed from the humorless angst plentiful in so many other movies right now, The Guard may be your man or… eh, film.

3.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy–dir: Tomas Alfredson; cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Set in the early 1970s, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy deals with the intricate inner workings of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service a.k.a. the Circus and the hunt for a possible Soviet mole within its highest rank.  The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), is a meticulously paced thriller that generates a wealth of tension through the slow accretion of significant dramatic details, plunging us into a maze of cryptic information curated by offices of silently suffering agents of moral relativism.  We live in a country where the lies running the engines of politics aren’t even hidden any longer and foreign policy is always reduced to clear black and white, good guy/bad guy scenarios straight out of a John Wayne B-Western, so the impact (and irony) of the moral betrayal on spy George Smiley (Oldman) may feel alien to many viewers looking for a decisive narrative throughline.  This is a rich, rewarding movie if you’re patient.  It’s stubbornly antithetical to the current fashion in high concept, easily digested commercial cinema, and I loved it even more for that.  Oldman’s slow-burn of a performance is one of his finest too… a perfect example of less-is-more acting.

4.  The Tree of Life–dir: Terrence Malick; cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, God.

Malick’s overwhelmingly ambitious coming-of-age drama is simultaneously poignant, intimate, profound, mystifying, frustrating, bewildering, sublime, ridiculous, warm, and cosmic.  From its performances—Pitt as the domineering father, Chastain as the benevolent mother, and McCracken as the wide-eyed son caught in the middle between fierce instinct and transcendent compassion—to its extraordinary cinematography courtesy Emmanuel Lubezki and Alexandre Desplat’s majestic score, The Tree of Life was a big budget experimental film in the guise of a Hollywood production.  You’ve certainly never seen anything like it.  Is it the masterpiece many of us expected?  No, I don’t think so.  But what does that matter?  This is nevertheless a major film… thoughtful, brave, emotional, and it contains some absolutely beautiful, haunting moments.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film so successfully convey how memories move us through the currents of time.  That Pitt and Chastain effectively gave depth to roles that were basically archetypes, is nothing short of a miracle.

5.   Mysteries of Lisbon–dir: Raoul Ruiz; cast: Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Ricardo Pereira, Clotilde Hesme, José Afonso Pimentel.

A glorious, enigmatic historical epic from the late Ruiz.  The movie is filled with seductive surprises and part of the pure enjoyment of it all is to not know where Ruiz is leading us. The journey, however, is brilliantly unfurled and incorporates straight melodrama, the evocation of Borgesian dream imagery and absurdist irony into its multi-layered pattern. It’s sumptuously filmed, but also subtly playful in a manner that will surprise viewers expecting yet another dry period piece. Watching Mysteries of Lisbon, it becomes increasingly clear that the best way to fully appreciate its enigmatic power is to just let go and disappear into this sprawling yet meticulously constructed masterwork.  We are all fiction!

6.   Hanna–dir: Joe Wright; cast: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemying.

A head-tripping exercise in style and action.  Films from Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan regularly indulge in expanding the grammar of action sequences with fast cutting, inventive blocking, and by daring to betray the laws of physics.  This isn’t always a good thing, since the more a director strays from physical or emotional authenticity, the more likely we are to disengage from the material.  A truly imaginative director like Takashi Miike can keep us connected because he’s so over-the-top we can’t believe what we’re seeing.  He’s unique.  Director Joe Wright, who was previously not known for delving into action, doesn’t embrace the outlandish like Miike does, but he is committed to the pleasures of far-fetched melodrama and he has a keen visual sense that makes this movie pop in all the right ways.  In telling his tale of a teenage girl, Hanna (Ronan), trained to be a lethal killer by her father (Bana), an ex-CIA agent, Wright always keeps things grounded in the human despite the pulp premise.  At times it reminded me of a mash-up of anime, fairy tales, comic books, and Sergio Leone.  That’s a must-see in my book.

7.  Road to Nowhere–dir: Monte Hellman; cast: Cliff De Young, Waylon Payne, Shannyn Sossamon, Tygh Runyan, Dominique Swain.

In Road to Nowhere–director Monte Hellman’s first feature film in 21 years–the destination at the end of the plot doesn’t matter.  To expect some sort of emotional or intellectual epiphany–a moment of dramatic clarity—at the finale of its 121-minute running time will only bring unneeded anguish on you.  That is not to suggest, however, that the film doesn’t reward the patient, adventurous viewer along the way.  The dark mysteries running through the film are as perplexing and seductive as anything you’ll encounter in a David Lynch work like Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive.  But in an age where subtlety and ambiguity are verboten from the majority of American commercial films—even ones with arty pretensions—Hellman’s return may be a trip many filmgoers may not be willing to take.  Which is unfortunate, considering Hellman has long been one of our most original directors working.  Written by Steven Gaydos, a Variety writer and long-time collaborator with Hellman, the film immediately plunges us into its narrative subterfuge when a blogger (Dominique Swain) pops in a DVD called Road to Nowhere, a mystery film directed by Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) about a real-life criminal case involving murder, embezzlement, and a missing woman.  Haven’s film stars a mysterious actress named Laurel (Shannyn Sossamon), who actually may be the real missing woman, and he immediately falls for her in proper doomed romantic fashion.  Toss in a sleazy but determined insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) pursuing Laurel and questions about identity and the relationship between truth and fiction, and one could easily expect a modern, existentialist-flavored film noir.  But melodrama, even of the noirish variety, is not the film’s ultimate concern.  The more philosophical aspects are its focus, however, and as each character finds themselves tangled in their own fictions, we become lost in the existential wilderness ourselves.  Being entangled in an unsolvable mystery such as this, though, never felt so satisfying.

8.  Meek’s Cutoff–dir: Kelly Reichardt; cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Zoe Kazan, Will Patton.

This minimalist Western, set and shot in the high desert of Eastern Oregon, is further proof how sturdy yet malleable this old genre still is for an imaginative filmmaker like Reichardt.  Critics and moviegoers keep writing the Western off… hell, they did that decades ago.  But every few years significant Westerns are released.  In the last few years we’ve had The Claim, Tears of the Black Tiger, The Missing, Blueberry aka Renegade, Dead Birds, Brokeback Mountain, The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma, Seraphim Falls, There Will Be Blood, Appaloosa, The Good, the Bad,the Weird, True Grit, and many more.  Doesn’t sound like a genre on its last legs to me.  Looks pretty damn durable.  There’s not a lot of action in Meek’s Cutoff.  It’s not a plot-oriented movie.  There’s plenty of suspense, however, and the moral quandary that the characters are mired in is deep and thought-provoking.

9.  The Artist–dir: Michel Hazanavicius; cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Uggie.

This is a wonderful, funny, and poignant tribute to the silent film era and it’s a splendid entertainment.  I even loved the damn dog

10.  Attack the Block–dir: Joe Cornish; cast John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost, Leeon Jones, Luke Treadaway.

Much like District 9 from a few years ago, this science fiction/comedy/action hybrid came out of seemingly nowhere and impressed me with its ingenuity, wit, and a playfulness that is largely missing from the majority of big budget Hollywood product.  This is the antithesis of everything the Hollywood studios are doing right now—it’s largely character-driven, it’s an ensemble piece structured around a bunch of unknown actors, and the leads are unlikeable for the most part.  At first.  This is a homage to the sort of picture John Carpenter made in his heyday of the late ’70s and ’80s, as well as a subversion of the kind of movie Spielberg made during the same period.  White suburban youths were frequently visited by sweet-natured aliens in Spielberg movies (and in the work of his imitators) or allowed to go on some sort of fantastical adventure.  Cornish takes that idea and flips it on its head.  What would happen if the aliens landed in inner city London and encountered a bunch of amoral toughs instead? And the aliens and youths weren’t cuddly either.  Believe it!

Honorable Mentions:

Mildred Pierce

Young Adult

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The Future

Senna

Le Havre

Contagion

Higher Ground

Take Shelter

Carnage

Drive

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Films I Haven’t Seen Yet But That May Have Made the Cut:

The Descendants

Margaret

The Turin Horse

Midnight in Paris

A Separation

We Need to Talk About Kevin

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

ten alternative romantic movies for valentine’s day

I don’t hate Valentine’s Day… it’s just never meant much to me.  Luckily, I’ve never been with anyone romantically who seems to care about it either, so there’s never been a moment of embarrassment or shame if and when the subject comes up.  No offense if you enjoy the day, it’s just not a “holiday” that means anything to me.  Perhaps if I worked in the greeting card or chocolate candy industries I’d change my mind.  Or maybe if I was a Chaucer scholar I’d care a little more.

That doesn’t mean I’m not a romantic, however.  I love a good romantic comedy… it’s just that so many modern versions of this perfectly good sub-genre are lousy, cynical, uninspired, and neither remotely romantic or funny.  Yet, people still flock to the latest Kate Hudson cinematic swill or to Sandra Bullock’s latest hate-fest.

So what is a jaded, frustrated, screwball comedy-loving cinephile to do?  Well, luckily there are still plenty of older movies to revisit or watch for the first time.  The following is my top ten list of favorite romantic movies.  Some are thoroughly within the romantic comedy sub-genre and some aren’t.  They all deal with love in some manner, though, and I think they’re insightful about the wicked, wicked ways of romance.

These are numbered, but they’re not in order.  I’m listing them in the order they popped into my head… which means something, I guess.

1.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

To know love is to know heartbreak as well.  Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman brilliantly capture both states of being here in this tale about two lovers–played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet–who decide to erase each other from one another’s memory via a clinic that offers the procedure.  Despite its fanciful premise, there’s not a false moment in this modern masterpiece.  In this scene, Joel (Carrey) revisits the house on Montauk that became a significant memory for him and Clementine (Winslet).  But the memory is now dissolving and Clementine with it.

2.  The Awful Truth (1937)

One of my favorite screwball comedies.  A wealthy married couple, Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) Warriner, divorce and try to ruin each other’s love life in the aftermath. Dunne and Grant are perfectly matched in this comedic romp and Ralph Bellamy as the Oklahoma hick who tries to swoon Lucy off her giddy feet practically steals the show.  The entire movie is silly, sophisticated, and nevertheless insightful about the ways of marriage.  The ending is brilliant.  The above clip is the beginning of the film.

3.  The Lady Eve (1941)

Rich boy snake expert/explorer Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda) becomes the target for beautiful grifter Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) while on a sea cruise.  He’s no match for her thorough working over.  Another favorite screwball comedy, this time  written and directed by Preston Sturges, and a sexy one at that.

4.  Lost in Translation (2003)

The restless heart is not restricted to any particular age or gender.  Recent college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) accompanies her rock photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to Tokyo while he’s on assignment.  While staying at the Park Hyatt, Charlotte meets Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an actor past his creative prime and dissatisfied with his marriage… just like her.  The two establish an intimate, intense bond.  Sensitive, observant, and emotionally rich, Lost in Translation is as good as it gets.

5.  The Fly (1986)

Boy meets girl.  Boy turns into a half-human-half-fly-hybrid monster.  Girl still loves him.  The romance is unconventional and tragic.  I never promised that all of these love stories would end well.

6.  They Live By Night (1949)

Director Nicholas Ray, a poet of doomed romanticism, here focuses on the lives of two young lovers, escaped convict Bowie (Farley Granger) and innocent Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). They’re on the run out in the big, bad black-hearted world.  The odds are against them.  It’ll rip your heart out.

7.  In the Mood for Love (2000)

“He remembers those vanished years…

Two married neighbors, played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, begin a friendship when they discover their spouses are having an affair.  Much like the friendship in Lost in Translation, sometimes the most intense romantic relationships aren’t overtly sexual.  It doesn’t mean there isn’t passion though.  Wong Kar Wai’s masterpiece is so feverish with longing it borders on the surreal.  The ending, which is what I’ve posted, is one of the great heartbreaking finales in cinema as far as I’m concerned. 

8.  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

If you’re familiar with Jacques Demy’s film, with music by Michel Legrand, then you know it’s a fucking masterpiece.  Yes, love will tear you apart.  This is the big separation moment.  Only the French could get away with something so deliriously tragic and make it feel so good.  Lola, Demy’s earlier film in this loose trilogy, and the later The Young Girls of Rochefort are equally brilliant.

9.  Wild at Heart (1990)

This is David Lynch at volume 11-grotesque, surreal, jarring, ultraviolent, and a whole lotta sexy.  Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are on the run, overheated, and deeply in love.  This demonic world tries its best to smother their love, but these two crazy, amoral kids are untouchable.  Sometimes Wild at Heart works for me… other times not so much.  But isn’t that like love itself?  You can’t sustain that heat all the time.

10.  Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Last but certainly not least… this is probably my favorite movie on this list.  It’s a romantic comedy for misfits and for people who think they hate romantic comedies.  I’m not an Adam Sandler fan at all, but he’s brilliant in this, as is the always lovely Emily Watson.  Yes, it’s dark at times, but it’s also joyful in a way that’s completely intoxicating.  This is pure cinematic perfection.  And as soon as I finish typing this, I’m going to rewatch it.  Jon Brion’s score adds so much to the film too, and the inclusion of Harry Nilsson’s song “He Needs Me” from Altman’s film Popeye is inspired.

witch house: suspiria (1977)

She never scales the clouds, nor walks abroad upon the winds.  She wears no diadem.  And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.

– from Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey

For pure sensation, there’s no finer modern horror movie for me than Dario Argento’s delirious bad acid trip Suspiria (1977).  Its opening scenes are hypnotic, disorienting, and nightmarish.  This is what a horror movie is supposed to be like!  Watching it for the first time back in the late 1980s–it had just been released on VHS uncut and letterboxed–I was startled by its ferocious style.  I’d read about Argento and had only seen Creepers a.k.a. Phenomena by this time.  I desperately wanted to see more of his movies, but at this point–at least in the U.S.–they were hard to come by, especially if you didn’t have friends who knew some guy who knew some guy who could get you a prized Peruvian third-generation bootleg of his work.  I’d been lucky enough to see Demons (a movie he produced) in the theater, but nothing could have prepared me for the dark spell that Suspiria weaves.

There are only a handful of movies that evoke the supernatural with such horrifying menace–The Seventh Victim, Curse of the Demon, Kill, Baby… Kill!, Toby Dammit, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (not overtly supernatural, I know, but it evokes a sense of occult unease throughout), and The TenantSuspiria and its follow-up, Inferno, are right at the top.

A young American ballet student, Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), arrives in Germany to study at a dance academy and quickly realizes that the school is actually run by witches.  Suzy arrives at the airport looking slightly bewildered (as  you do when arriving in a foreign country for the first time) and a narrator gives us some expository details as to who she is and why she’s there.  But Argento smartly dismisses the voice-over after a few seconds.  It’s as if the director immediately wants to shut down any preconceived notions we may have about this movie.  Up to this point, Argento was known as a director of gialli, such as Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails, and Deep Red–aggressively stylish thrillers loaded with convoluted plot detours and Grand Guignol-styled death scenes.  Suspiria, however, immediately signals that it is something different… weirder… less interested in plot, character, and ideas of realism.  This is an adult fairy tale unbound.  And beyond the looking-glass, the world moves to much stranger rhythms than the one we know.

During a powerful thunderstorm (It was a dark and stormy night…), Suzy manages to flag down a taxi.  She instructs the gruff driver (the coachman who will whisk her to the castle of her nightmares) that she wants to be taken to the dance academy.  They drive through the fabled Black Forest and Suzy plunges deeper into a netherworld of sadism, murder, and diabolism.  But just as Suzy arrives at the academy, Argento shoves her aside and focuses instead on another student (Eva Axén) who flees into the night and to a friend’s apartment… toward her ghastly demise.  Her prolonged death is mesmerizing in its savagery.  It’s also oddly beautiful, perfectly keeping with the tradition of Decadence that Argento is clearly an adherent of.

Below is my small tribute to this glorious masterpiece of death.  It focuses only on the opening scenes and in the future I’ll do another one focusing on other parts.  I’d like to do one for the equally terrifying Inferno as well.

Enter… play loud!

 

the devil made me do it: night of the living dead & the exorcist

Horror movies–particularly of the supernatural variety–are perpetual favorites around my household, but during the Halloween season we tend to watch even more of them.  As a child and teenager, I cut my teeth on the genre.  I loved fantasy, science fiction, and Westerns too, but it was horror that I connected with the strongest.  What that says about me psychologically, well… don’t tell me what you think.  It’ll just make me morbidly self-conscious.

The horror genre–more so than any other kind of movie, I think–tends to get judged by its worst examples.  You mention that you love horror and immediately most people think slasher killers, serial killers, and so-called torture porn.  You mention that you love supernatural fiction or movies, those same people are likely to nod their heads in solidarity when Repulsion, The Shining, and Black Sunday are named.  That’s not to say that I’m not up for a great knife-wielding maniac picture like Psycho, Blood and Black Lace, or Tenebrae, but my taste runs more toward the weird, surreal, and unnerving than say, The Human Colostomy Bag or whatever gag-inducing picture is driving the kids wild these days.

This season we’ve been revisiting horror classics, movies we saw too many times earlier in our lives but haven’t viewed in ten years or so.  Stuff like George A. Romero’s highly influential Night of the Living Dead and the equally trendsetting William Friedkin picture The Exorcist.

There’s no need to say much more about them.  They’re true classics that have weathered the years and passing trends well.  They’re scary, beautifully crafted in their own distinctive ways, and they linger in the imagination long after they end.  They may not be my personal favorites, but there’s no arguing their mythic stature as the luxury models of the field and I do love them.

Below are two videos I put together.  The Night of the Living Dead score is famously swiped from various music library sources.  The music suite from The Exorcist is Lalo Schifrin’s rejected score.  It’s great, but you can also hear why Friedkin went with using work from modern composers George Crumb and Krzystof Penderecki instead.  Make sure to watch them with the lights out and in HD for the best picture quality.

all according to the law: the great silence (1968)

 

The Italian film industry during the mid-to-late 1960s was cranking out Westerns at a prodigious rate, a trend that started after the box office success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.  That movie was a gritty, ecstatically violent remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which was loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest), and it made an international star out of relatively unknown actor Clint Eastwood.  Hundreds of so-called spaghetti Westerns flooded the market over the next few years.  Many of them are excellent–Django, The Big Gundown, A Bullet for the General, to name a few–and they rank among the greatest Westerns ever made, especially Leone’s subsequent contributions to the genre–For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West.  But none of them can match the darkness awaiting you in Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 classic, The Great Silence.

“I’m going to shoot every one of these people here,” a bounty hunter named Loco (Klaus Kinski) states near the end of the movie to Pauline (Vonetta McGee), before he does just that.  Pauline’s husband was killed by Loco and she hires a mute bounty hunter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to avenge his death.  Although Silence is a lethal killer and exudes a sexy coolness that was de rigueur for any antihero worth their leather chaps in those days, he’s sauntered into the wrong movie.  He’s doomed.

Corbucci’s world is dominated by corruption–the Utah town where the story is set is ruled by bounty hunters and venal authorities.  The majority of the townspeople–men like Pauline’s husband–have been branded outlaws because they’ve had to resort to stealing food to survive, which is why so many bounty hunters have swarmed into the area… business is a-boomin’.

Silence is a man of violence.  He makes his living off the blood of others, but he avenges the poor and is anti-authoritarian, another strong plus for any proper gunslinger in the age of rock ‘n’ roll.  John Wayne–who during the same time always represented larger-than-life father figures and men of the establishment–was square.  Duke represented the hardhats and Nixon’s Silent Majority.  He was your dad.

Silence, on the other hand, was who young guys wanted to be and who everyone wanted to be with.  He was lean, sharp, and European.  Trintignant was French and decidedly cool.  Arguably even cooler than Eastwood’s Man with No Name character.

But not even Silence could get out of Corbucci’s movie alive.  Evil is not vanquished.  There’s not even room for an ambiguous finale, a stalemate where Silence and Loco are allowed to go their separate ways, each the hero in their own narratives.  Silence dies, Pauline dies, the townspeople all die, and Loco and his men ride off to destroy the lives of others for another day.  Loco even plucks Silence’s pistol from his cold dead broken hand and keeps it for himself.

It sounds like a movie you’d never want to see unless you were a complete masochist, right?  It’s certainly not for the timid, but The Great Silence is also a movie of frail beauty and melancholy, something that you can’t really say about a lot of spaghetti Westerns.  But it’s not a particularly beautiful looking movie, despite its striking snowbound, mountainous setting.  The typical dusty and dry Almeria locale seen in countless Italian Westerns is gone.  Corbucci filmed in the Dolomites instead, isolating his characters in ice and snow, effectively stripping the movie of duels in the sun and horse chases across cracked earth.  Even Ennio Morricone’s score is plaintive and haunting, removed from his usual operatic majesty.

Then there’s Kinski.  A fixture in spaghetti Westerns, Kinski shines darkly here like never before.  At least, I’ve never seen him in anything that rivals this black-hearted bastard of a character.  It’s simply one of his finest performances, though not one sans humor.  Kinski’s eyes flash with secret wisdom throughout and there’s a moment of modest brilliance when a character shoots off his hat at one point and Kinski flicks back his head, his hair whipping back away from his eyes, as if to show that it was no big thing.  Even under pressure, he was going to remain unscathed.  Fearless.  And that as an actor, no indignity was going to seep into him.  Vonetta McGee and Trintignant are marvelous, as is Frank Wolff (an American character actor who worked plenty in Italian features, usually as a bad guy) who plays the local sheriff, the only decent authority figure in the movie.

The Great Silence has a lot going for it, despite its unapologetic nihilism.  It lacks the stylistic finesse of Leone, but its ruthless butchery of Old West mythology and its critique of unbridled capitalism and authority is spot on.  Perhaps not the kind of movie you want to pop on for a night of escapist entertainment, though it’s certainly satisfying and one of the great spaghetti Westerns.

The video at the top is a little homage I put together.  Another one of my experiments.  Hope you enjoy it.

look upon the ruins: throne of blood (1957)

Released in 1957, just three years after Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is not like any Shakespeare adaptation you’ve ever seen.  Dislocated from its traditional Scottish setting, the play is reconfigured into a Japanese historical context that, oddly enough, feels like a perfect fit.  Ambition, murder, obsession, madness, human frailty, otherworldly terror, and tragedy do not abide by cultural or geographical borders.  Kurosawa’s artistic gamble is one of the director’s most brilliant creations and one of his most visually haunting as well.  As Stephen Prince points out in his essential book on the filmmaker, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Kurosawa didn’t simply adapt the play.  He reconfigured it into a proper Japanese and specifically Buddhist context, ridding the film of the play’s introspective moments and giving this more muscular adaptation a circular framework that imposes a supernatural nihilism drawing from the Noh theater traditions that a samurai warrior, such as Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), would have been familiar with.  Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, who worked together a number of times, also give the film a bold, haunting look that will linger in your memory for some time.  Images of gnarled tree branches and wild thickets clot the frame on several occasions, reminding us that Washizu’s fate is immovable, resistant to Western ideas of free will.  Washizu is doomed from the opening moments, locked within the circular Hell of his life, and the film is appropriately structured to reflect this idea of cosmic fatalism, a theme that Kurosawa explored in a number of his films.

The video below is an experiment and something that turned out better than I expected, so I uploaded it.  I’m sure I’ll improve over time (because I’m going to do more of ‘em) and perhaps even one day figure out how to make the pictures move.  But for now, think of this as my version of a Fotonovel.

sidney lumet 1924-2011

Film director Sidney Lumet died on Saturday of lymphoma.  He got his start as a child actor working on stage, co-starring in the 1939 movie One Third of a Nation, and later he studied acting at the famed Actors Studio in New York.  In the 1950s, Lumet made a name for himself working in television, directing such shows as The Best of Broadway and You Are There.  He also directed Boris Karloff and Grace Kelly in a 1952 production of Don Quixote.  Sadly, it was not taped for posterity.

But feature film work was where Lumet would shine.  He was no auteur in the manner that the next generation of filmmakers would become—Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, De Palma, et al—but his handling of actors was equal if not better than any of them.  Lumet’s gifts as a director were not imprinted on every frame of film like many of the aggressive stylists that typified the later so-called New Hollywood directors, though his work always stressed consistent thematic concerns that were easily identifiable in his best movies—the belief in liberal democracy, the strength of the individual over the group, and the need for the individual to combat corruption embedded within a justice system set up to curb criminality but that paradoxically, frequently exacerbated it.  Crime and the way an individual takes a moral stand against it, or not, is a thematic corner stone for arguably his most important productions, the movies that have made the biggest impression on me, at least.

Lumet’s first movie 12 Angry Men (1957) and much of his work through the next decade—The Fugitive Kind (1959), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Hill (1965), The Deadly Affair (1967), and The Appointment (1969)—all have their strong points.  But his movies throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s are the ones I connect with the most.  The Anderson Tapes (1971), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), Running on Empty (1988), and Q & A (1990), all made huge impressions on me as a young moviegoer, helping me understand that special chemistry between an actor and a director.  Throughout his career, Lumet regularly extracted career-best performances from many of his leading performers, such as Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Treat Williams, Nick Nolte, and River Phoenix.  As a viewer, the result on screen was frequently brilliant to watch.  Pacino–who for me seemed to rely more and more on showboating technique as his career ground on—never appeared as real and vulnerable and human as he did in his work in the 1970s, particularly in his collaborations with Lumet.

It’s been gratifying to see so much appreciation for Lumet’s work over the last couple of days.  These are strange times for anyone who loves drama and naturalism in American movies.  What used to be a routine stylistic approach for Hollywood, especially since the late 1960s, has been relegated of late to independent movies or television shows like David Simon’s The Wire or Treme.  Todd Haynes’s recent HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, has been an extraordinary reminder of how rich naturalism can be when utilized by a director with an affinity for it and how working in that mode does not mean one is working sans artistry.

Lumet knew how to capture New York City on film, making it snap, feel lived-in and pulsing with life.  The city is not just a backdrop for the characters to move through or for the cinematographer to manipulate and exaggerate as needed.  Like other directors who have made New York City their location of choice–Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara, and Spike Lee, to name a few of the more notable and recent ones—Lumet had no compunction about showing the city in all its unromantic, gritty reality.  But it’s not simply a negative portrait of the city either.

Edited by the great Dede Allen and utilizing the Elton John song “Amoreena” to great effect, Lumet’s montage takes a characteristically realistic approach, showing the city in all its multiplicity.  In just a few minutes, the city of New York is brilliantly and succinctly established as a character itself, a location crammed with people of all ethnicities, gender, age, and economic classes which exist beyond the narrowness of the plot that will quickly commandeer the movie.  But it won’t remain in the background for long.  As the plot progresses, with Al Pacino and John Cazale desperately trying to maintain control of a hostage situation that has turned into a media event, the city will once again re-establish itself within the narrative, and linger long in the memory once the credits role.  The movie was the first Lumet I’d seen, I think, and it nestled deep within me.  It’s still my favorite of his movies, as well as my favorite Al Pacino performance.

The acidic satire Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky, is another great one and is resonant now as it was when first released.  Lumet maintains his humanistic approach to the material, grounding Chayefsky’s broad satire in the realistic rhythms he’s most comfortable in, but it’s an exaggerated naturalism that showcases Chayefsky’s aggressive stamp over that of Lumet’s.  Excellent stuff nevertheless.

Many of Lumet’s movies, particularly Prince of the City, Running on Empty, and Q & A, seem ripe for re-evaluation.  By the 1990s, in light of the attitude-heavy posturing of a post-modernist filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, Lumet’s straight dramatic take on crime and punishment seemed old fashioned and he fell off the radar for me.  I knew Family Business (1989), A Stranger Among Us (1992), Guilty as Sin (1993), and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) had been released, but they were also sadly easy to ignore.  Most critics thought the productions were far from Lumet’s prime, and audiences stayed away.  Lumet kept working sporadically though the next decade, though no one would have called you a fool if you’d declared him done artistically.  Kaput.

In 2007, though, Lumet came roaring back with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a movie that in every shot showed a director at the height of his craft and artistry, and who deftly turned what could have been a rudimentary heist picture into the most layered of tragedies.  Melodrama is a term that’s frequently used as a pejorative because so many filmmakers have contempt for the form and wield it as if it’s incapable of psychological or moral depth.  But the movie is one of the most incisive explorations of moral fragility and desperation that I’ve seen in many years, while still maintaining its generic function as a crime picture.  That ability to balance both content and form is not unique when talking about crime fiction—there are countless examples of novels that say something important while giving us the requisite page-turning excitement we crave—but in the post-Tarantino crime world, most filmmakers go for sensation, style, and garish hyper-realism only.  The movies feel alienated from everyday life and removed from any real, tangible human experience.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead couldn’t feel more relevant or alive.  There’s an urgency to the movie, a kinetic energy that kicks in from the first shocking moments—no, I’m not talking about the scene of a naked, narcissistic Philip Seymour Hoffman watching himself in the mirror while he has sex with Marisa Tomei, but the scene of the jewelry store robbery gone horribly awry–and never lets up until the finale.  Constructed in a non-linear manner, the movie feels fresh in a way that Lumet’s movies hadn’t felt in decades.  Filmmaking is a young man’s game and many a great director has petered out artistically before his actual physical time.  For Lumet to deliver such a knockout experience that late in his career is remarkable and was a foreshadow of more great work to come.

But there won’t be any more movies from him.  It’s the lament of every cinephile the world over who has ever mourned a favorite director or a writer.  No more…. There is, though, a body of work to re-discover.  For anyone who cares about drama, actors, and stories that have resonance to our adult lives, that are rooted in timeless narratives but that speak to us as contemporaries, the death of Sidney Lumet is a passing that should not go by unacknowledged.  Hollywood in recent decades has become an industry solely catering to the teen male mind or that of children, with only an adult-focused movie here and there.  In recent years, that narrowness of experience has become increasingly the only dream for sale to audiences.  That’s tragic for artists like Lumet and for those of us who need something more than CGI and Power of Myth narratives to entertain.

random moments in film criticism #2

“The pure horror movie would be that in which the forces of evil succeeded in taking over, the one they would themselves direct: pure, and therefore unrealizable.  Carmilla, the gorgeous undead girl (invented by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu) who infiltrated bourgeois households in Blood and Roses and The Vampire Lovers, was the advance agent for a New Order, but you would never get to see what sort of a world that would be.  There would never be The Last Man on Earth II, detailing what happened on virus-ridden Earth in the aftermath of Sidney Salkow’s unforgettably downbeat 1964 production, after there was no one left except vampires.  The inheritors, in such a scenario, would propose a ravenous alternative dispensation, in which the lords of chaos in their unrestrained domesticity could give themselves over to a voracity without end.”

The evocative passage above was by the writer/critic/editor Geoffrey O’Brien and taken from his superb, impressionistic analysis of movies and memory, The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, originally published in 1993.  It’s not a traditional critical examination at all, but it’s brilliantly written and contains many insights that keep me going back to it all these years later.  Reading the above paragraph immediately reminded me of the movie below.

The video clip is taken from the experimental movie Begotten, directed by E. Elias Merhige, from 1991.  It’s not really a horror movie, although it contains plenty of macabre imagery and feels unwholesome in that way only the best horror movies can exude.  It looks and feels as if it had been unearthed from ancient soil and screened as a sacrament to unnameable gods.  It feels like something they would screen for themselves for a night of entertainment, when their bellies were too bloated to continue their ritualistic sacrifices.

some of my favorite things #8: patricia arquette

I almost got fired for this woman.

It was sometime during the summer of 1993 and I was working at an independent video store in Northwest Portland.  It was a great job and I worked there for years.  Of course, one of the perks was that we’d get free passes to see movies every now and then.  I lucked out and was given one for two to see True Romance at the Lloyd Center Cinemas.  The catch, though, was that I couldn’t leave work early to see it.  I got off at 7:00.  The movie started at 7:30.  I had to race out, jump on a #15 bus and ride it downtown, then bolt onto the MAX and ride that across the river to the cinema, then try to get a seat.  No way was I going to get in that screening on time and I had to see this movie.

It was based on a Quentin Tarantino script, the first release after Reservoir Dogs, and a year or so before Pulp Fiction shook the film world.  It had a great cast and it co-starred the lovely Patricia Arquette, who I’d had a crush on since seeing her in that third Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  We’re roughly the same age (I think she’s a year older) and I was smitten.  I was going to get into that fucking movie.

I left about ten minutes early.  I got in.  I loved the movie.  And I almost got fired the next day when I slunk into the store and was given a serious reprimand by the co-owner who had checked up on me.  I apologized… sincerely… and was grateful to still have my cool job.

But it was all worth it.  She was worth it.

It’s Arquette’s birthday today and she is definitely one of my favorite things when it comes to modern actors.  I don’t like everything she does–she’s woefully miscast in John Boorman’s screechingly earnest Beyond Rangoon–and she doesn’t have a lot of dramatic range.  But so what?  She made for a perfect cinematic dream girl for this movie-mad American male during the 1990s.  And she’s still lovely.

David Lynch obviously thought she made for the perfect object of unobtainable desire in his superbly creepy and sexy 1997 neo-noir Lost Highway, my favorite of his movies.  Playing duel roles in it, duel symbols of a sometimes frightening female sexual power, Arquette entered that rarefied realm of ultimate noir siren.  A siren worth risking it all for.

And like all great cinematic sirens, particularly of the noir variety, she is forever out of reach.

But that’s what repeat viewing was intended for.