when you have to shoot… shoot… don’t talk: eli wallach

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Character actor Eli Wallach turns 97 years old today. I’ve said it for years that he’s right at the top of my list of people to have dinner with, because he’s a brilliant raconteur and you know the evening would be filled with entertaining stories. He’s long been a favorite and it’s difficult picking just one brilliant performance by him. I love so many of his scene-stealing roles in various movies: Baby Doll (his first feature), The Lineup (a nifty crime movie), The Magnificent Seven (one of the great first scenes), The Misfits, Lord Jim, and more recently in his memorable small role in The Ghost Writer.

He’ll always be Tuco to me, however. Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Wallach plays “the Ugly”) is epic stuff, rich in visual texture and sublime in aural majesty. Like all of Leone’s movies, what makes them brilliant is the direction and the score by Ennio Morricone. Acting is always subservient to that. That doesn’t mean great performances can’t be seen in these movies. All three of the leads in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are fantastic and Wallach in particular gives a ferociously entertaining performance.

There’s a little Tuco in all of us.

To celebrate this man’s latest birthday, here’s one of the final scenes in the movie, showing Tuco running through the cemetery looking for the grave of Arch Stanton… where the gold awaits. It’s a deliriously operatic moment and a fitting prologue to the violent showdown, which can be seen directly below it.

Happy birthday, Mr. Wallach.

some of my favorite things #9: something wild (1986)

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“You sure you know what you’re doing?”

“No.”

It’s dangerous revisiting a movie you loved in your youth, but haven’t seen since then. If you’re prone to wallowing in the effluvia of solipsistic nostalgia, you may convince yourself that you can recapture the experience. The movie may be the same, but you aren’t. You can’t return to that original moment when you were first seduced.

One of my favorite movies from the 1980s was Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. When it came out in 1986, it was a refreshing alternative to pretty much everything else playing and it confirmed that Melanie Griffith was the “It girl” at that time. The movie also resurrected Demme’s career (which had run aground with Swing Shift a few years earlier) and gave us the showstopping feature film debut of Ray Liotta. It was a modest work, but it snapped and never wore out its welcome.

Something Wild–a mix of screwball comedy and crime–was sexy, stylistically hip and contemporary, and its tonal shift at the halfway point was startling at the time. When Liotta makes his first appearance at the school reunion sequence about an hour into the movie, we plunge down the narrative rabbit hole for good. It’s an invigorating feeling because the shift from neo-screwball comedy to the darker, violent material is so seamless. The movie wasn’t static in that first half. Demme and screenwriter E. Max Frye have been testing our footing continuously in little ways. Lulu (Griffith) comes on strong in the early scenes, like an earthy boozy dream girl, yet a softer more introspective side to her personality comes out when she arrives at her mother’s place. Jeff Daniels plays Charles, the ultimate vanilla rich yuppie, a character we should automatically hate, especially after viewing him duck out of a New York City diner without paying his bill in the first scene. What’s remarkable about the way Daniels plays the character and how he’s written, is that Charles is a rather likeable guy. He’s weak and adrift though. One of the great ways Demme and Frye convey this is by never having Charles drive in the first half. He’s always in the passenger seat. Only when he’s forced to take control of his destiny and chase down Ray (Liotta) and Lulu, does he get behind the wheel and take charge. It’s a sort of cinematic shorthand, showing us instead of telling, and it displays Demme’s visual literacy.

I have a weakness for the yuppie in hell storyline, which was quite prevalent back in the 1980s. Risky Business, Into the Night, After Hours, and Blue Velvet all delivered variations on that theme and I loved them all. Something Wild was the most unique for me, however, because Lulu never stayed a cliché. She never remained trapped in one persona or viewed only through Charles or Ray’s eyes. She never remained the fetishistic dream girl and that was significant then… maybe even more so now. She comes on like an uninhibited femme fatale you wanted to run away with, but there’s so much more to her than that. She not your dream girl. She belongs to herself.

Looking at the movie again last night (watching the Criterion Blu-ray), I was struck by how vibrant and fresh it still felt. It was even better than I remembered it being. Here are a few notes from this latest viewing:

1. Demme remarkably never condescends to his characters… or the audience. Whether we’re watching the early scenes of gritty, funky New York City, watching Charles and Lulu on the road playfully interacting with colorful characters, or watching Lulu awkwardly banter with old friends and acquaintances at the school reunion, Demme never cruelly mocks his characters. There’s real warmth in these scenes. It’s Capraesque by way of the Lower East Side, though free of the camp distance that Lynch employed in Blue Velvet with his view of small-town life.

2. The movie looks and feels like authentic America… not Hollywood America. This being a road movie too, we get many shots, courtesy of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, of open rural spaces, rickety motels, greasy spoon diners, and tourist traps. That’s not exactly fresh for movies, but Demme captures these locales with his characteristically light touch. Certain places, such as the squalid motel where Ray is staying, exude menace, but for the most part Demme keeps it low key. Compare these scenes with Scorsese’s hyperrealism in After Hours. Demme comes off as downright mannered in comparison. We also get a racially mixed America and one were elderly people actually exist and mingle with younger people. Demme’s codified America has vitality and is a telling contrast to the muscle-bound, paranoid, and psychotic Reagan-era fantasies that were the norm at the multiplex at that time.

3. Something Wild does have a dark side. Once Ray memorably appears at the reunion, the cracks begin to appear in the American dream. Liotta is a force of nature here–physical, charming, impulsive, dangerous. Intelligence flickers behind those icy blues eyes, but it’s reptilian. While prodding a clueless Charles about how he met Lulu/Audrey, he feigns camaraderie and amps up the laughter, lulling Charles into a false sense of male bonding. Ray is really laughing at Charles and setting him up for a beating. Perhaps the violence in Something Wild doesn’t have quite the same ferocity it did that first viewing, but it’s still vicious and Liotta’s performance remains threatening as much as it is captivating.

4. The use of color. Having previously only seen the movie on cable television and VHS tape, the look of it never really worked its way into me. The Criterion Blu-ray revealed a completely new aesthetic layer. Demme, Fujimoto, and the set/art/costume departments crowd the frame with hot colors in that first half, then dramatically strip it down for the second. I don’t usually think of Demme as a boldly visual director, but he’s intelligent and nuanced. When he moves the camera in a striking way, it’s for a good reason. Pay attention.

5. The music. This has one of the best soundtracks of its era. “Wozani Mahipi” by South African group The Mahotella Queens, “Someone Like You” by The Knitters, and the substantial contribution from The Feelies during the high school reunion scenes all made big impressions. But the soundtrack as a whole is just great in how it’s utilized. Demme does give a nod to visually showing characters listening to music in their cars, the motel room, or in a liquor store. It’s realistically used, but the songs also color our impressions of who Lulu and the other characters are.

6. Last but not least, there’s sex. Characters fuck in Something Wild and it’s playful, slightly naughty, and served up refreshingly guilt-free. Lulu is obviously a sexual magnet, but Ray is as well, albeit in a more threatening way. When he preys on the naive gift shop girl, who is underage, it feels dangerous… but you also feel her excitement and attraction to the wolf. The scene also gives us a glimpse of how the now wise Audrey (Lulu’s real name) must have felt when she first encountered Ray years ago.

This one is coming to the desert island. For me, Jonathan Demme was never better than here.

happy birthday, clint: army of one

I had no idea I hadn’t blogged since March. I honestly just stepped away from the computer. The house is obviously bigger than I thought. I will do a proper post soon, but since it’s the birthday of one of the great (still living) movie stars, I thought I’d celebrate with a couple of videos from two of Eastwood’s best movies.

I watched Kelly’s Heroes earlier in the week. It’s not a movie I ever cared about. Friends have tried getting me to reassess it, but I’ve been stubborn. I really didn’t like it the last time I struggled through it around 1999 or so.

What an idiot I was. I saw it with new eyes and for my money it’s one of the most entertaining of the later World War II movies. The director, Brian G. Hutton, directed the fabulous Where Eagles Dare, starring Eastwood and Richard Burton, and that one has always been one of my favorite war movies. But Kelly’s Heroes was too anachronistic and silly for me. Like I said, however, I was an idiot. It is very much the things I chastised it for being… so what? That’s why it’s fun. It’s also great because of the cast and it’s well-directed. War movies post-Saving Private Ryan tend to be serious, serious, serious affairs. Real war is certainly grim and depressing. But not every war movie has to be. At least, not all of the time. The video below is the original trailer.

And when I think of Eastwood, I think of Westerns. My favorite of the Eastwood oaters (excluding the Leone ones) is The Outlaw Josey Wales, released in 1976. I was seven years old when it came out and I saw it in the theater. It made quite an impression on me and I’ve watched it numerous times since and its hold hasn’t weakened. The book it’s based on, Gone to Texas, is very good too. The video below is the original trailer. I may just have to re-watch the movie this weekend.

down the lost highway: my video tribute

Patricia Arquette as Alice... turning heads.

Sex, and the fear of sex, is the prime mover in David Lynch’s movies.  It squirms within the crawl spaces of narrative, frequently uprooting the melodrama with a riot of wanting, thumping, howling fucking.  Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Mulholland Drive, all overflow with images of lurid, nasty, sweaty, animalistic sex.  Lynch frequently—sometimes within the same movie—feeds the overheated Puritan beast as well.  The plunge into the sleaze is typically rooted in the moralism of conservative Neverlandism.  This old-fashioned American boy wants his pussy (depictions of sex and lust are always thoroughly hetero-driven) as much as he wants his cherry pie and cup of joe.  It’s just that the sweet howl of fucking is accompanied with the wag of moralism.  For whatever reason, Lynch can’t turn off to turn on.

Lost Highway isn’t entirely free of the moral gaze—e.g. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) are each sexually obsessed with Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette) and Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette), though the intensity of her sexuality simultaneously destroys each man as well.  They fear her.  Attraction/repulsion eroticism has claimed many a drifter, conman, rube in film noir.  The genre is piled high with the limp bodies of broken men who stupidly believed they could covet the unattainable, then tried to murder what they couldn’t capture.  Written by Lynch and writer Barry Gifford (they also worked on Wild at Heart together, another sex and violence-soaked trip through the pulp hinterlands), Lost Highway amplifies sexual obsession to an aggressive, intoxicating level.  The movie’s dark descent into noir-soaked depravity is aggressively carnal, relishing with fetishistic detail the unraveling of men to their overheated ids.  Contemporary American commercial cinema has long had a problem with depictions of adult sex on screen.  Puerile teenage sex comedies, like Porky’s and American Pie, are okay, but any filmmaker over the last decade who wants to have two adults fucking on screen in a non-comedic context is going to run into problems from the studio, the ratings board, and/or the public.  It’s probably best for a director to just have a man bash in a woman’s head or slash her wide open, spilling her guts across the screen, than risk box office receipts because a little wholesome fucking was shown instead.

Sex in Lost Highway is defiantly lurid and influenced by images of pornography.  There’s nothing really new here in this Lynch/Gifford neon-lit wasteland of corruption that hasn’t flowed through countless film noir tales before.  But it is more graphic and overt about what was really generating beneath the banal plot details.  Like Vertigo, Bad Timing, and David Cronenberg’s Crash, Lost Highway isn’t shy about what’s really motivating its characters.  It revels in the graphicness of lust and violence, the engine that motors the best pulp fiction.

The setting of Lost Highway is Los Angeles, the city of sun, sparkle, and manufactured dreams.  It’s also an industry town of nightmares and desolation.  The two movie industries that run it are mainstream commercial features and pornography.  The city is a dead sprawl where unfulfilled desires nestle alongside insatiable ambitions; where the evidence of heartbreak and hopelessness stains the bedroom walls of scuzzy motels and palatial mansions alike.  For every wish granted, there are a thousand promises broken.  Los Angeles is the land where melodrama and tragedy intermingle; where comedy and horror cling to each other so savagely it’s difficult to distinguish between the two.

Lynch and Gifford know this world well, and in Lost Highway they chart this attractive/repulsive nightscape with the precision of longtime residents… or, at least, veteran moviegoers and readers.  The City of Angels is a place heightened to a delirious pitch while simultaneously grounded in the meat and bone and blood and impulses that are all too human.  In Lynchville, metaphor and concrete physical reality have always been entwined.  It’s no coincidence that Lost Highway begins and ends with the image of a car racing down a ribbon of asphalt… a Möbius strip that will become more explicitly metaphorical and concrete as the narrative unwinds.  As with most all of Lynch’s work, however, the real strength of his storytelling has nothing to do with the mechanics of plot or character.  It’s how he tells the story, how he constructs a mood, how he generates images and sensations that we’ve never seen before.

Though many viewers love to pick apart what things mean in Lynch’s work, trying to decipher the symbols and dream imagery as if it’s a code that can be solved, implying that there’s one way to read each movie, I’ve never found his work to be cerebral at all, at least not in a way that Godard is cerebral or Resnais, Rohmer, and Haneke are.  Lynch is intentionally cryptic, but the work to me has always provoked thoroughly emotional responses.  Anything beyond that is an afterthought.

Lost Highway gets under my skin.  In the screenplay to it and in its press materials, Lynch and Gifford refer to the movie as a “21st-century noir horror film.”  It is and it isn’t… certainly not traditional genre fare.  Horror isn’t a real genre anyway, as critic and author Douglas E. Winter pointed out in his introduction to the anthology Prime Evil, and I whole-heartedly agree with him.  Horror is an emotion, a feeling that transcends the parameters of genre.  It’s not like the Western or science fiction or the mystery.  Lost Highway does effectively mix horror with mystery with the absurd, something that Lynch has always done, but here he goes farther off the edge into the great weird unknown.  The movie is suffocating at times.  Fear and paranoia fester in every frame and Lynch rarely dilutes it with humor.  There is comedy in it—the scene of mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) lecturing the tailgater while beating his brains out is hilarious wish-fulfillment—but the darkness of the movie overwhelms all… as it should.

I love much of Lynch’s work, though this is the one that hypnotizes me the most.  I’m lost within its spell from the first moment.  I’ve written about my longtime crush on Patricia Arquette before.  She’s never been better or more appealing than here, though like her role in True Romance, she’s an idealized male fantasy.  But unlike True Romance, Lynch and Gifford are aware of how fragile and destructive that allure is… how it binds and obliterates the male characters too weak to resist her.  Her sexual appeal masks a great nothingness.  Underneath the façade, Renee/Alice is a crude, uninteresting woman.  Nothing shakes off the spell more than seeing Alice stand next to Pete, who has just murdered her sleazy old lover Andy (Michael Massee), and mutters “wow” with the detached air of a Southern California-baked Valley Girl… or a sociopath.

Nevertheless, Renee/Alice is a hard one to resist… the ultimate femme fatale.  The movie stands alongside Vertigo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, and Bad Timing as the ultimate fetishistic take on sexual obsession.  Below is my uncensored video tribute to the movie.  PLAY IT LOUD!

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.