Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Worth Remembering?

There are some films that come and go. You know the ones the pictures you have to keep a journal of just to remember you even saw them. There are other films that your recollection is reduced to a thumbs up or thumbs down review. In other words all you can remember from a film is whether or not you liked it. Even films we may love we forget the majority of. I've often noticed I have an extremely hard time remembering the characters from any movie I've seen. Take today for example. I watched Edgar G. Ulmer's 1944 film Bluebeard. I can't recall the name of the female lead and only faintly remember the name of John Carradine's character. Later I watched Rex Ingram's often overlooked 1926 film The Magician, which I had previously fallen asleep to. So even though I'd seen part of the film before, even with a fresh viewing I can't recall the name of any of the characters, including Paul Wegener's constipated looking mad scientist.

Of course a few quick clicks and I can recall these names instantaneously. In fact both of the aforementioned films are still on my DVR so I can even watch the films again to hope they stick in my mind earlier, but the point remains these films don't have the type of characters that are unforgettable. In fact the cartoonish grimace on Wegener's face is probably the image I'll remember most from Ingram's film. Although there are sequences in the end that predate James Whale's Frankenstein by about five years. His obsession with creating life is not so much to advance science, but to be generally creepy. If you put a gun to my head I couldn't tell you what Virginia Kelly's character was named, or her rather pedestrian love interest/hero. The film itself is more a curiosity and a minor footnote for people studying the silent evolution of the horror film, particularly the American one. Like many early American horror films this is definitely indebted to the Germans, in this case it's lead villain was a very well known German filmmaker/actor who made his own contribution to the Expressionist Horror film with The Golem in 1920. Even though you can debate how many "horror" elements are in Wegener's adaptation of a famous legend, it does have a monster and at least one scene that was repeated almost exactly in Frankenstein.

However I'm not here to mention how forgettable films are, because well those often aren't worth remembering. What I'm talking about are the films that you can't stop thinking about. The ones that stay with you when you're trying to sleep like Tetris combinations after playing that game for several hours. Many of us have walked out of a David Lynch film unable to form even the most basic description of the film's plot, but damn if we can't stop thinking about those giant rabbits in business suits or Robert Blake calling himself at a party. It's a testament to Lynch that he can get in our brain so much. I was told once by someone who went to a screening of Lost Highway that one of the reels was played backwards and out of focus, and the audience simply accepted it as Lynch being a weirdo and thought it was genius rather than a projectionist falling asleep at the wheel. Imagine something like that happening in a Transformers movie.

Some films stick with us simply because they're singular and unique in the world of film. Sure every film is like a snow flake, but lets be honest nearly every one of us has said "you've seen one you've seen 'em all" to describe some film or type of films. However in most cases we have a point of reference. Sure there isn't another film out there that can visually compare to Avatar, but you can judge the film based on it's director's previous work, and the story is a familiar one, albeit with some details greatly altered. It's plot has been compared to both Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, but you got to love the happy ending that didn't come the way of the natives here in the US, btw sorry if I spoiled anything for the 20 people out there who haven't seen Avatar. Although some critics didn't know how to classify Avatar. Roger Ebert gave it a "special jury prize" in his best of the year list. It is a singular achievement, and the type of thing that would have gotten a special Oscar in years past.

Now if you're wondering what the image up above is from, I'll get to that. It's from a film by Alain Robbe-Grillet called L'Eden et Apr├Ęs (or Eden and After for those of us who don't speak French). It was screened at Doc Films tonight as the first in their series of post new wave French films. The schedule had Marguerite Duras' Nathalie Granger following it, but for reasons I won't get into that was pushed back a few days. Perhaps if I had another film to divert my attention right after it would have reduced the impact of Grillet's film. As it is I had a nice hour plus drive home with no music to think about it even more. If Robbe-Grillet's name is familiar it's because he was previously a novelist and screenwriter and wrote Alain Resnais' cult masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad. That in mind, it could help decipher the mystery of this film. Resnais' film baffled me when I saw it. I neither liked it nor disliked it, I just had no idea what to make of it, much like this film. A few years later I watched it again and began to understand some of it's mysteries, but I'm not sure my mind was still adapted to it. There is a whole subculture of film enthusiasts who live and breathe with Marienbad and spend most of their free time obsessing over it's details, I thankfully have not joined that club just yet.

This film was a mixed bag at times for me. It's credit sequence alone was unlike anything I'd seen before. Everything was out of order, random words were being shouted, credits were spoken on top of each other, some printed, and all the abstract shots made little sense (at the time). It set up some of the puzzle like structure of the film, which essentially has three less than equal length acts. Eden is more or less a cafe where bored college students give themselves scenarios to improvise. Their various exercises seem like they'd be right at home in a Rivette film, but you may watch it and say "what pretentiousness". That "p" word is hard to avoid throughout this film. The audacity of Marienbad made several people accuse it's director and screenwriter of the same misstep. However every time I wanted to shake my head and say "what balderdash" there was some intriguing aspect that made it elevate above spoiled bored college kids and a pretentious filmmaker being difficult for no reason other than his own boredom with conventional cinema. It perhaps should be noted that this film was made in 1970, when the new wave had all but faded from memory and was already watered down and bastardized for American consumption. Whenever dealing with adventurous narrative structures there is a tendency to try and surpass your predecessors and before too long you miss the mark and are just being weird for the sake of being weird. Godard pushed his films further and further until venturing into nearly complete abstract terms, which is probably the best explanation why very few of his numerous 70's films are on DVD, yet almost all of his 60's work has gotten the Criterion treatment by now.

One of the things that may have endeared me to the film was a script I started writing sometime at the age of 16-17. It made no sense, intentionally so, and refused to have any sort of plot. During the first act of the film centered around the cafe I thought someone was up to my idea. I wondered if I had been that pretentious with my own incoherent ramblings, and thought probably, after all I was a very, very pretentious teenager. However, seeing a film that touched on some of my ideas that I thought were so radical, that was made nearly 30 years before I wrote the first words of that script made me think in glib post modern terms, simply put everything has been done before. Now the rest of the film helped to move further away from my ideas and into more or less narrative cohesion. The second act, the shortest by my estimate, takes place in a new factory along the waterfront at night. Violette (Catherine Jourdan) is supposed to meet the stranger Duchemin (Pierre Zimmer) there, and well she somehow gets spooked, hides in the closed factory where she runs into her partners from the cafe who have their own strange game going on that is never really explained. The next morning, they even deny being their, but that's not terribly important right now.

The third act takes place in Tunisia and involves a plot described earlier about trying to get a small painting Violette's uncle left her. Earlier one of the group suggests selling it and going away somewhere. In the third act they are away, but the search is on for the picture which turns up missing from Violette's room after the night at the factory. There things get strange and clear at the same time. Earlier flashes of hallucinations from a "fear powder" she takes start to look more like premonitions (or flashbacks depending on how you look at it) and we see more fleshed out versions of these earlier glimpses, including one particularly unsettling scene with some scorpions. Now trying to figure this film out is not something I can adequately do, especially after just one viewing. I believe the film is available online, but is not on DVD, certainly not region 1. However thinking of it's puzzles are intriguing and the type of stuff that may lead to a slight case of insomnia this evening when I try to sleep. Violette is "attacked" in all three acts. She is the victim of a type of gang rape scenario that opens the film, she is pursued in the factory, and kept blindfolded and chained in Tunisia. The film can be some sort of allegory for her particularly feminine attitudes towards fear of the opposite sex or a feeling of being used by her peers. I'm not sure of the psychology of it, did she make it up, is it all some sort of bizarre pretentious game to mess with our heads? Was this movie conceived with the help of drugs and only with those hallucinogens could it make sense? Or is there a real riddle or puzzle that can be solved and might be deceptively simple? These are the questions that aren't necessarily posed by the best films, but are certainly brought up by the most interesting. After all if the film was outright bad I wouldn't even care to figure out the mysteries. Many questions were left unanswered by Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, but I simply didn't care to figure any of them out.

The strange and surreal appeal to a lot of film lovers. Rarely do I have anyone ask me about what Humphrey Bogart film to watch (although I once got into a heated debate about Cary Grant's films) instead people want to know what I can recommend from the odd side of things. People who recently get into David Lynch and want to know what else is like that (the answer is nothing people). However when you see countless films that follow an ABC format, it is so welcoming to see one that messes with things a bit. These films were much, much more common in the late sixties and early seventies and don't seem to have much national preference. They came from everywhere, Italians, French, Hungarians, Ukrainians, the Swedish, and well the list goes on. I even got to see an interesting comedy from Taiwan called The Bride and I that fits this surreal mold. Clearly there was something in the water, and who knows it may have been LSD. My best bet for someone looking for something a little on the weird side is to look for the years 1966-1972 or so, and chances are there's at least one psychedelic freakout in there somewhere.
Perhaps it can make you a little nostalgic. After all no one really seems to be doing much of that these days, but then you put on your post modern thinking cap and realize that David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, and Guy Maddin among others are certainly in their own little surreal worlds. Perhaps when I decipher more of the mysteries of this film I'll clue you in . . .

Monday, March 29, 2010

The State of Cinema 2010

Here we are a few days before the end of March, 2010. Easter weekend is on the horizon and well I find myself dwelling on the past. There are a few halfway decent films critically already coming to theaters, and if I vow not to fall behind the way I did the last three or so years I should be getting to theaters as often as possible. I've managed to catch a solid 6 films so far this year and I'm not sure any of them will survive until the end of the year to place on a top ten. Unfortunately since moving to Lindenhurst seeing "quality" films is something that's best done when films come to DVD. If I'm willing to drive around 45 minutes there are a few theaters showing some of the more critically praised films but there are a few problems. I can drive about five minutes and see the likes of The Bounty Hunter, Alice in Wonderland, and Hot Tub Time Machine but well I'd rather not. I did get to see Alice in Wonderland and well I'm not saying it was a waste of time, but I'm not sure it warranted the 3-D treatment, or even warranted being made.

There are some stories that seem to be made and remade every couple of years. I'm waiting for yet another "gritty reboot" of Hamlet which I'm sure won't be too far off. Alice in Wonderland was adapted back in the silent era, got the all star treatment from Paramount in 1933 (which is worth the price of admission to see Cary Grant in a giant turtle outfit), the well known Disney animated feature, which is getting another re-release on DVD one day after writing this post. For my money, Jan Svankmajer probably did the best version of Alice combining live action and his trademark stop motion claymation with his 1988 debut feature. Although people who insisted on going to see Tim Burton's latest waste of time and money would probably revile in horror at seeing a film from Czechoslovakia. For accessibility reasons there is an English language version, and it's interesting that all the voices are Alice, which makes a connection to the subconcious world of our protagonist that is less subtly hinted at in other adaptations. Now I can give a resounding recommendation but well I'd like to think most of the people reading this are familiar with the film already, at least in reputation.

To say that Hollywood's fascination with remaking films is a relatively recent phenomenon is ignorant to say the least. Sometimes Hollywood lets a generation go by as in MGM's versions of Ben-Hur which went from 1925 to 1959 (even though there is also a version from 1907 much less known and far shorter). In other instances they just try every couple of years until they get it right. In 1931 Roy Del Ruth directed a film based on a novel by Dashiel Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon, which was followed about five years later by William Dieterle's Satan Met a Lady, and then five years later by John Huston's adaptation which is still the definitive version. So if you think they remake films too often, imagine three adaptations of The Da Vinci Code in a ten year span.

Every generation a new cycle of horror films seem to come around. A few silent precursors led to Universal's first great horror film cycle beginning with Frankenstein. After that studio bastardized their cash cow franchises making the plots more inane and substituting logic and reason for more monsters Universal finally put the monsters to bed after 1945's Horror of Dracula, which along with The Mummy's Ghost might help explain why the films began to fade in popularity. The Universal demise coincided with Val Lewton's low budget string of classics, but even they were getting stale and out of fashion around the same time as Universal's (1945-46). Lewton avoided the classic monsters, but Hammer Studios in England resurrected all of them with Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein (and too many others to name). Although the next several decades saw numerous new adaptations of Dracula as well as numerous horror adaptations, it wasn't until Francis Coppola got a hold of Bram Stoker's novel in 1992 that a new cycle came to screens. I won't get too much into precedents, but perhaps this was the birth of the gritty reboot that seems so horribly popular these days. I'm sure most of us are cognizant to remember the films that followed but well every generation needs monsters. Of course they get a little gorier (or sillier if you follow the Mummy format) and they always cost more money.

Of course remakes very, very, very rarely get the critical accolades necessary to sustain long term classic status, but when has anyone made money just to win awards and praise (Miramax not withstanding). As we move into spring and soon summer the critically praised films will crawl back into those strange art house cinemas that cost about $10 a ticket for a matinee and require at least an hour of driving. It makes it hard for those films for obvious reasons. Movie theater ticket prices are so ridiculously high that if you're patient enough you can get the film on DVD cheaper than you can buy just one movie ticket. Take for example The Wrestler. Since it was pining for Oscar gold, it was in "select release" for several weeks. My brother and I went to South Barrington where one of their 30 screens decided to show the film (how gracious of them) and we went to see it. Like many theater chains AMC has gotten rid of their student discounts (last check I think it was still available one day a week), so being under 65 on a Friday night I had no choice but full price. At the time I paid what seemed like an astronomical $10 to get in, my brother not being special paid the same. So for two people you can do the math. About 7-8 months later I was in a Blockbuster that was soon to close. Every DVD in the store was $5, and what film did they have about 30 copies of? You guessed it, The Wrestler so for half the price of one movie ticket I could've owned the film just a couple months later. Which I hope explains why I went to so few films this past year.

The economy of film going is disturbing to say the least. There are some bargains. The University of Chicago's quarterly pass runs you about $28, and every weekend they show two second run releases, as well as a wonderful variety of hard to find films the other five days of the week. Of course you can ask who the hell wants to drive to Hyde Park, and if you live in the city public transportation is not terribly convenient to get down there. However if willing to make the trek it's easily the best deal in town. I'm looking at the recent releases and I'd love to see The Mother but the closest theater playing it has recently raised their ticket prices to $11, and well I might spend 40 minutes trying to find a spot to park down there. So perhaps that's one destined to wait until DVD, a fate suffered by every other Bong Joon-ho film so far. Studios wonder why people are so ready to download copies of films in current release, well you can't tell me it has nothing to do with ticket prices. To be honest, I even looked for a torrent of Bong's film when it was released here this week, but to no avail. Sorry to say but as a matter of necessity, who can afford regular cinema attendance? Studios who are getting wise to this are using some of the same tactics that they used in the 1950's, and just like before they aren't really working. Yeah Avatar broke some box office records, but adjusted for inflation, it doesn't stack up too high. That film was certainly worth the extra $3 for the 3-D experience, but when the effects are added in post as they were with Alice it tends to be a bit disappointing. As a forewarning I was told Clash of the Titans was shot in 2-D as well with the extra effects done in post production, which is making me lean towards seeing that on the cheap without those goofy glasses. If film ticket prices are so expensive, its hard to ask people to shell out even more money for a 3-D or IMAX experience. As home theaters get better and better with Blu-Ray, HDTV, and even now 3-D TV it seems movie theaters might permanently lose the battle. People will always go to see movies (I see no shortage of cars on a Friday night at a multiplex) after all it is still the cornerstone of dating and offers at least one topic of conversation for the following dinner. However, the incentive to see quality films is getting to be less and less, and rather than scouring the earth like a scavenger to find one of two screens a film like The Last Station might be playing, it seems so easy to just wait until DVD and let Netflix send it my way. I don't worry for the state of the industry, just the quality of it.

So we go back to my problem facing me the last couple of years, playing catch up. At last count I was up to 48 films from 2009, which by my previously established benchmark would leave me two films away from being able to rank my top ten, even though there are a few potential contenders I haven't been able to find (I'm not even sure The Beaches of Agnes was screened in Chicago last year). It of course makes my list somewhat irrelevant, but at least my recommendations might help someone decide what to rent rather than what to catch in a theater.

Monday, March 8, 2010

How Many Licks Does It Take?

I hope none of my readers are too young to remember this iconic rhetorical question courtesy of Tootsie Pop. I use it to reference a key question in relation to film, which to put it simply what do you need to see to be an "expert". The analogy isn't hard, simply put the licks in this case are films you've seen. The center of a Tootsie Pop however can be any number of things. This can be one director's work, a film movement, all of film in general, or in this particular case the expertise necessary for a single year of cinema.

So if you recall the commercial it appeared that Mr. Owl's response was three. Let's not take my analogy too seriously no one will be considered an expert on say the films of 2009 if they've only seen three, regardless of which three films they might be. Critics certainly have an advantage on regular cinema fans because it is their job to see pretty much every film that comes out sometimes even if the film hasn't been distributed. So in a given year a critic may see somewhere around 300 films, which would make their top 10 fairly well informed then. The average person who has any sort of profession besides film critic will be lucky to see 300 films from any year let alone from the current one. So with the help of our critic friends we the people need some help filtering out the Hotel For Dogs and Did You Hear About the Morgans?

Now to make a top ten list what's the obvious bare minimum of films to see, well ten obviously. However even if you see 90 more films from the same year and none of them are as good as the first ten you saw, your list can't be taken too seriously. We do on occasion need points of reference otherwise how can we spot the truly exceptional films if we don't sit through a few duds along the way. The average Hollywood summer blockbuster offers enough mindless diversions to help you differentiate the substantial art. Not to say that films like X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Terminator Salvation are particularly awful films, in fact I enjoyed both. That said I don't see either one standing any chance of being amongst my list of best films of the year, or even in an extended also ran category. I haven't seen a great deal of stinkers from 2009, and to be honest I didn't see that many films period. In fact unless I miscalculated I've seen about 33 films from the past year. If you're reading this and thinking "Where is your top ten?" all I can say is that 33 is not my magic number.

Awhile back I set the arbitrary number to answer this rhetorical question I first posed at 50. Now 50 films isn't the answer to all the questions I asked, after all you can be an expert on the Coen Brothers films long before you see 50 of their films, simply because at last count they got awhile to go until they hit that number. You're hardly an expert on French cinema either with just 50 French films seen. However if you've seen 50 Romanian films you might very well be qualified to write a book on the subject, but that again is why this question never has one right answer.

Back to the yearly debate. I personally just feel that I can be comfortable with releasing a top ten list if I've seen 50 films from that year. Sure I might still see more films from that year, and in some cases ones that might very well crack the top ten, but if you chose your 50 films wisely their won't be too much room for late entries. Take this year for example and the 33 films to date that I've seen from it. I can make an easy list of films released theatrically this year in the US that I haven't yet watched and you would hopefully agree that a top ten of mine would be useless without at least checking these next films out: Where the Wild Things Are, Broken Embraces, The Last Station, A Single Man, In the Loop, The Messenger, Of Time and the City, 24 City, Police Adjective, 35 Shots of Rum, Capitalism: A Love Story, Lorna's Silence, The Limits of Control, or Two Lovers. If some of these films are making you scratch your head, then maybe you need to do some more research yourself. Now to say those are all the "worthwhile" films from 2009 that I missed would be foolish. I might not ever see all the "worthwhile" films from 2009 or any year for that matter. After all even such revered masterpieces of the past like The Searchers, Vertigo, and Touch of Evil were largely dismissed when they were originally released. Perhaps there is that next potential masterpiece that's going to take another decade or two to find. To give a recent example, how many top ten lists did Donnie Darko pop up on in 2001?

So I'd say in the future of this blog I can promise one thing, I'll never open my mouth about the ten best films of any given year unless I've seen 50 films. In fact the last year that I've met my own criteria for was 2006, where I've currently seen 71 films even though I'm still not sure I've seen all the good ones. I'm still yet to see Peter O'Toole's Oscar nominated turn in Venus. So you can see how this debate can be endless, when can you simply let go and say "this is the best I've seen"? I don't necessarily think that Venus even would make my top ten even if I haven't seen it yet. So since I know you're all dying to know this is how my top ten would stack up from 2006 (pardon the tardiness):

1. Children of Men
2. The Departed
3. The Curse of the Golden Flower
4. Bobby
5. Borat
6. Letters From Iwo Jima
7. A Scanner Darkly
8. Inland Empire
9. Pursuit of Happyness
10. United 93

Now as you can see this list has a few problems even now. For starters this isn't the exact ten that I originally posted for this year. I recently cut the South African Oscar winner Tsotsi, which although one of my favorites has since been eclipsed by the other films I've seen that year. Unfortunately that means the only "true" foreign language film on the list is Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower which quite a few people hated for it's bloated visuals and over indulgence. These people have typically resented Yimou's transformation to martial arts epic film maker from his once humble and rebellious 5th Generation roots. I personally love both films and would easily rank a film like To Live or Raise the Red Lantern alongside Hero or House of Flying Daggers. After all a good film is a good film, no matter the budget or who makes it. I mean who would have thought one of the best musicals of the last twenty years would come from Lars Von Trier (Dancer in the Dark is a musical people)? However we haven't resolved the problem that my list is powerfully dominated by English language films. After all Pan's Labyrinth wasn't even on my list or the highly regarded German film The Lives of Others. Unfortunately you'll have to take my word for it that I did see more than a fair amount of foreign language films that year, but well the best films just happened to be in English. This says something about the state of foreign films that year and also the relatively sparse distribution for foreign films that year and virtually every year.

Of course one of the problems for this is that often the best foreign films of a given year don't come to US shores in that same year. Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Hana and Alain Resnais' Private Fears in Public Places would have easily made my list if they were released here in 2006. I can't retroactively update all my top tens based on when the film was geographically released however. I do employ this tactic for films released last century, considering for most of those years I'm catching films retroactively. In plain English I don't care if Jean Luc Godard's Weekend was released in the US in 1968, it was produced in 1967 and premiered sometime in December 1967 internationally so I'm counting it as one of the best films from that year. I have in fact seen more than 50 films from 1967 and let's say foreign films do a little better than in 2006. I'll save that top ten for another blog entry, perhaps on the 60's in general once I get every other year that decade above 50, but I digress.

Now nearly every year I make a vow to keep up on the new releases. I did this in 2005 and that remains to this day the only year I was able to post a top ten by December 31st. Sure I had to wait until January for a few of the Oscar contenders that year to come out (Munich for instance) but I made a point of going to the show practically every week. I happened to be lucky because 2005 was one of the strongest years in recent memory. Which begins another question, what if there aren't ten great films from a year?

Who's to say that just because you've seen 50 films from a year that there are ten masterpieces worthy of a top ten placing. Hell you can see 200 films from some years and never find 10 worthy. Maybe a given year only has 6 or 7 great films. 2003 is such a year for me. Sure I really enjoyed films like Elf, Bad Santa, and Thirteen but in any other year these wouldn't have placed on my top ten. Not to say there weren't some excellent films made that year, for starters City of God was released as was Kill Bill Vol. 1, Elephant, and the final installment of Lord of the Rings. Just to say there were ten films of that caliber would be a mistake. In fact 2006 is another example, I'm not sure United 93 or Pursuit of Happyness would make my top ten in a stronger year, like 2005 for example. Now this is where you have to make that distinction and list the "pretty good" films that might ordinarily pop up on a runner's-up list rather than your best of.

The Seventh Seal dir. Ingmar Bergman one of the many great films of 1957

However the opposite can certainly happen. 2005 I'd rather list a top 15 than merely ten. In fact you can easily find more than 10 masterpieces without even having seen 50 films from a year. I can easily make a case that 1957 was the greatest year for cinema. I've only seen 47 films from the year (which would put it under my magic number) but there are no less than 14 films that I would not hesitate to call a "masterpiece", and plenty of other also-ran's that could place on any number of lists. From Russia (The Cranes are Flying) to Poland (Kanal) to Sweden (Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries) to Japan (Tokyo Twilight and Throne of Blood), to India (Aparajito) there are no shortage of masterpieces from this seemingly charmed year. Even the American's offered a few gems with Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, Witness for the Prosecution, Sweet Smell of Success, and 12 Angry Men to name a few. I would have a hard time chopping four films off this list to accommodate a top ten, but I guess when you're a critic whose seen 300 films from a year you have to make similar sacrifices every year, much to public outcry. Roger Ebert mentioned taking a lot of flack for posting a top 20 for 2008, and even while apologizing to some extent offered a list of ten "mainstream" films and ten "independent" for 2009.

So why do we need ten? It is easily digestible but depending on the subject ten can seem an insult. Before too long Sight and Sound will be updating it's every decade list of the best films of all time and this list has always been a top ten. If you ask over 100 movie critics and professionals their ten favorite films it seems almost like an insult. How many surprises can you find in a list of ten films for the growing cinephile? You'd be lucky if there is a film or two you haven't seen. However if Sight and Sound upped this to 100 there's a good chance that most fans of cinema would at least have a few films to check out, even possibly a list whore like myself. Back to the year end list though, ten just seems to be about as much as we can digest. After all even a seemingly well balanced list like Film Comment's top 20 this year seems to bog down towards the bottom. If you are basing what films to see on it, you'll certainly make a point of seeing the higher ranked films but might be distracted by warm weather and baseball by the time you work your way down to the 16-20 realm. Sure that list is gospel to the creator, but to the reader its something to be taken into consideration arguably for nothing else but to put together their own well informed list.

I apologize if I've been far too long winded with this blog, didn't know I had so much to say.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Thoughts on the Oscars - The After Edition

Well the dust has settled a bit and the 82nd annual Academy Award ceremony has just concluded, running a very characteristic 30 minutes or so over schedule. Why they don't just give the ceremony more time is a mystery to me and instead of cutting everyone's speeches short there could have been a lot more trimming. Did we really need interpretive dancing for the best score nominees? Seriously folks whose bright idea was that torture? Plus having an extended introduction for the best actor and actress nominees was a nice idea in theory, but in actuality it stretched out beyond infinity, considering the telecast was already past it's allotted time and well how much ass kissing can you stomach in one night? Well until I'm given the opportunity to produce the show I guess I'll have to keep on complaining.

As for the awards and reactions let's get down to business. I can't say I'm terribly surprised that Kathryn Bigelow won best director and that The Hurt Locker walked away with the top prize. Not to say she was a shoe in but it was hardly a shock. Now of course my pick for best picture was Up, not because I thought it would win, but because I thought it was the best film of 2009 and easily the best film nominated. It was already relegated to it's consolation prize of best animated feature (which it did win) so there was no one betting on Up for the top prize, a little surprised Tom Hanks didn't even announce the nominees before handing out the final Oscar. Perhaps a second viewing of The Hurt Locker might be in order but I can't say the film blew me away, then again I wasn't terribly impressed with Slumdog Millionaire. Lee Daniels would have been my pick for best director but I can certainly admire what Bigelow did in her film and for historical purposes neither selection would have been too bad. In fact all five best director nominees were well deserved, and James Cameron can at least take comfort in the fact that he may have been the most thanked person of the evening.

As for the acting prizes there will be no complaining for Jeff Bridges much deserved Oscar. Bridges has typically been great over the years and although this go round wasn't a surprise either it felt right and deserving. I'm yet to see A Single Man so I can't say completely that he was the best of the nominees but of the four I saw he clearly stood above everyone else. Now when it comes to the actress prize, that doesn't sit well with me. I couldn't even figure how Sandra Bullock managed to bamboozle everyone into giving her a nomination let alone win, but I guess that's what happens when the category is this weak. I know I shouldn't bad mouth the nominees this year, but seriously this was one of the weakest groups of best actress nominees in memory. Meryl Streep got another useless nomination for a clearly supporting role that required virtually no range of emotion just mimicking a very parody friendly figure. Amy Adams displayed even more range in her role in the film that was relatively without conflict to begin with. Carey Mulligan would have most likely gotten the prize if I were God, her performance was affective convincing and had some depth that the other nominees seemed to lack. Sandra Bullock though? Has the world gone bonkers? Maybe I'm just a hater but I haven't really liked her in any movie she's been in and her strong willed southerner here did absolutely nothing for me. Wow she stood up straight and talked back to men, but well maybe I'm in the minority here. Helen Mirren was already cursed with a recent Oscar and a film that I don't think anyone even saw, good luck finding a theater within 100 miles playing The Last Station, yet Cop Out is on multiple screens at some theaters, there's no accounting for public taste I guess.

I would have hoped Michael Haneke would get his Oscar for The White Ribbon but was surprised to see the virtually unknown Argentine film El Secreto de Sus Ojos win the prize. Perhaps this will allow that film to get some sort of distribution and I can compare, I'll hold off on crying for blood until I get more acquainted with the other nominees in this category.

As for the supporting actor and actress winners I'm not sure when the last time two horribly unlikeable characters won the award. No one was denying the great performances by Christoph Waltz and Mo'nique who once again made all the experts look smart by winning their much predicted trophies. It would have been nice to see more awards for the films these two came from but well this was clearly the Avatar vs. Hurt Locker awards and unfortunately films like Precious, Inglorious Basterds, and Up in the Air had to settle for "glad to be nominated" recognition.

As the night comes to an end I feel relatively familiar with the nominees from this past year. My last minute catch up involved seeing Wes Anderson's great film Fantastic Mr. Fox which didn't stand a chance in the animated feature category despite how great it was and how much critics liked it. Sometimes it seems like that award could easily be renamed "The Pixar Award". I'm not disagreeing with Up, as I've previously mentioned here but like most of the categories it didn't even seem like there was any competition. In fact this whole ceremony lacked any surprise or conflict. It was one overly long snore fest that mercifully came to an end 30 minutes too late. Perhaps when films like Paranormal Activity and Anti-Christ get Oscar nominations some credibility might come back, but well I don't see Lars Von Trier getting any sort of industry support any time soon. Perhaps even one day the foreign language Oscar won't be dictated by national politics and simply represent the five best films (from any country) that happen to be in a foreign language. In fact El Secreto wasn't even the best reviewed film from Argentina last year, I saw much more glowing reviews for Lucrecia Martel's film The Headless Woman, which would probably never get a nomination of any kind from the Academy.

Ah well another year, another list of "what should have happened" after all you can't expect people to agree with the Academy's choices every year do you? Over the next couple of months I'm sure I'll turn up more great films from 2009 that failed to be noticed, this happens. Perhaps when I feel confident enough with my research I'll post a belated top ten from last year, but there's still plenty of research left to do. However I can't help but feel this was one of the weakest Oscar telecasts ever, and we didn't even have to suffer through the best song performances.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Thoughts on the Oscars - The Before Edition

As will be shockingly evident in future posts, I'm a bit of an amateur historian on the Oscars. I say amateur because no one has paid me for any of my opinions, reactions, or predictions. For years (about 8 now) I've been working on a loose Alternate Oscars book where I make a case for all my picks from 1927-28 to the present. Danny Peary wrote a book on the exact same subject that has since gone out of print, and well his writing is what set my mind on this crazy project. Even when I think I'm getting close, there's a whole new year of nominees to see, research and bitch about. I recommend checking out his book which can be found on Amazon fairly cheap used here.

Now before I get too far off the current topic let's talk about Peary and his book a bit more. Why write it at all if there's already a book on the subject? Well for starters Peary's book was published in 1993 and goes up until the 1991 Academy Awards. Think of how many films have come out since and how often the Academy has chosen poorly (The English Patient over Fargo for instance). Also Peary did not include his picks for best director, he limited his choices to picture, actor, and actress, so there are is a whole other category to gripe about (this is the place where you can retroactively moan about Kubrick's lifetime of snubs and finally give Hitchcock his rightful Oscar for Psycho among others). He also chose to largely ignore foreign films, his justification (quite understandably) was that the Academy has long ignored foreign films. In fact the whole Academy was started to salute the films of Hollywood because way back in 1927 most of the best "art films" were coming from over seas, the establishment saw this as a way to remind people that in addition to entertaining the domestic product could be just as artistically credible.

Now let's avoid the history lesson for now, and get onto the present. For the first time since 1943 (I know I said we were done with history) the Academy has selected 10 best picture nominees. The reasons are bountiful on both sides for and against this change. Art pictures seem to do worse and worse at the box office this year. Plenty of reports have shown that The Hurt Locker lost money in it's initial domestic run and well several of the other nominees in year's past didn't do tremendous box office. So by nominating 5 additional films you are giving them great advertising for people like me who have to see every film ever nominated for a best picture Oscar (there are only 8 films since 1927 to get nominated that I haven't seen). So sure for people who miss most of these films when they first come around, which is entirely possible if you live in a rural area or even suburban enough to not make the lengthy drive it sometimes takes to see these obscure gems. A best picture nomination generally convinces your local multi-plex to bring a film around. It has helped a few films catch a second wind this year.

However the main complaint is that the more nominees you have, the more duds will get nominated. Typically in any given 5 nominee year you have one or two really excellent films, one or two pretty good films that probably didn't need to be nominated, and almost always at least one head scratcher that you'd like to be recounted. Last year was a year I can't say any of the films were excellent. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire were both very good, Frost/Nixon was a pleasant surprise, Milk was also a very good film (although I wonder if Paranoid Park was Van Sant's better picture of the year), and The Reader took the token spot of being garbage. Not to say The Reader was so bad but find me someone in five year's who will voluntarily watch that film and look me in the eyes and tell me it was a better film than The Dark Knight? So last year would have been a good time for the 10 nominees, The Reader wouldn't have stuck out as bad, and people like me wouldn't have reason to gripe that films like The Dark Knight and Wall-E were left off the ballot. Now for those people who think The Reader was actually worthwhile and deserved even more than just a nomination I apologize but can we just go one year without a WWII film winning awards? I won't get political here, but after 6 decades the subject is all but exhausted.

Now let's take a look at this years class. I'll go through each film one by one alphabetically so let's begin with:
1. Avatar - By far the most popular of the nominees this is the one that makes as strong a case for best picture by being simply the best overall production. The staggering budget was a cause for great speculation before it was released. I saw it in 3-D opening weekend and technically was very impressed. However the all important story seemed to be very much "Dances With Wolves . . . in Space." It is a good story, but I probably liked it better when Kevin Costner directed it to Oscar gold back in 1990. This is certainly on a much higher scale, but it is much easier to relate to Costner's film for Americans because it is our own history and we don't have the blanket of a foreign planet and the distant future. James Cameron is easily one of the finest filmmakers working and although his resume might be small it is certainly impressive. However I'm not going to say this film is better than Terminator 2, Aliens, or even True Lies and those films didn't exactly harvest Oscar gold. I think no matter how you look at it there isn't much of a case for this film beyond being technically impressive and looking good.

2. The Blind Side - This year's The Reader, at least in terms of the film that least belongs among the nominees. I comfortably believe this wouldn't have been up for the big prize if the Academy stuck to their regular 5. Now before I get too far I'd like to say that the film isn't awful, by no means it's designed in a way that makes it hard to be awful, but impossible to be great. Whenever the words "based on a true story" are uttered in the context of a film there's a part of me that wants to push the panic button. This is a feel good story about an under privileged athlete that finds a second chance with excessively rich white people. I often wonder how much different Michael Oher's life would be if he had no athletic ability whatsoever. It goes back to the Dumbo fable which always seemed to send a wrong message of "It's not right to criticize someone because they might have some magical special talent, if they have no talent however make fun of them all you want." Not to say people are "picking" on Oher in this film but would there really be a movie if it was just some rich white people adopt a big black kid from the ghetto? How Sandra Bullock managed to get a best actress nomination is another story altogether can't say her headstrong performance did anything close to impressing me.

3. District 9 - This I believe is another film that benefited from the extra nominations. When it was released in theaters I didn't have much of a desire to see it. After my brother saw it and reported back with an unfavorable review I just ignored the picture. However when the nominees were announced I had to check it out. Luckily it was already on DVD and I found a film that is quite surprising to find amongst best picture nominees. It was produced in a foreign country, there are no stars in it, it's science fiction, so these typically aren't the signs of Academy recognition. However when a film is well made sometimes you just trust it to someone to recognize it, even the typically out of touch Academy. This was easily one of the best films of the past year and took about 1/10 of the money spent on making Avatar to craft a much better story. The films are similar in their alien life, world's disrupted, and one person becoming one with the species. I don't want to compare them too much because they really aren't terribly similar, but I didn't feel beaten over the head with this film and it's modest but extremely well done special effects, the way I left Avatar feeling like I'd been bludgeoned into believing it was a masterpiece (or I must be crazy to think otherwise). I'd say this has less than 1% chance of winning the big award, but in this case a nomination is probably enough of a victory.

4. An Education - Carey Mulligan is outstanding in this film and is easily my favorite for best actress (whether or not she'll win is another story that I won't get into). The story progresses a little too long without a real conflict which makes you a little off guard when the story takes it's turn. It is of course a story a little too familiar, but you don't harbor great feelings of resentment towards either of the main characters, despite how lecherous David might be. At least this film demonstrates without hardly any budget and a well chosen cast not selected for star power could carry a film. This does have "The little train that could" written all over it and is another film that should just be happy it got nominated, certainly it's Oscar nods have helped it gain some box office momentum. This like Crazy Heart seem to have landed on numerous critic's top ten lists based on acting power alone. However for my personal opinion this is a pretty good film that's not quite best picture material.

5. The Hurt Locker - This is the one that everyone who disliked Avatar is pulling for. The David in the battle with Goliath. Popping up on the top of numerous critics lists and proving that once and for all good films can be made about the conflict in Iraq. Now I'm setting myself to be stoned when I say this but I didn't see what was so great about it. Not that it was a bad film at all, but I just wasn't terribly impressed with it. I'm not entirely sure what everyone else seemed to see in it, and no I'm not one of those people that needs a lot of huge explosions and special effects to be interested in a film. It seemed almost too short and I'm not sure if I agree entirely with Jeremy Renner's best actor nomination, although it is welcome to see a relative unknown getting that career boost. As for Kathryn Bigelow I may have actually enjoyed her vampire film Near Dark more than this. Now before I get hit with too many stones, I did like the film and thought there were some incredibly intense moments, but to crown this one of the best of the decade and a masterpiece for the ages seems to be over exaggerating a tad bit for me.

6. Inglorious Basterds - Based on the somewhat mixed response this received upon it's initial release I was surprised first to see it up for a Golden Globe, but not as surprised to see it in the best picture race (considering one is typically a precursor to the other). Everyone has rightly anointed Christoph Waltz for the performance of the year, even if it is supporting. However, the film itself sure seemed to anger the foreign press in some circles and over here in the US many people found it a little too wordy an lengthy. Those complaints are nothing new for Tarantino films which have long established themselves as dialogue driven efforts. Sometimes (Death Proof) this can be a distraction, but here it helps the film out. Sure the grindhouse fan in all of us would have liked a little more bat-to-head contact, but would this film have gotten a best picture nod if our blood lust was fully satiated? The finale in the movie theater certainly gets as much pent up violence out of its system as you'd like, leaving the viewers with the feeling like the nazis got just what was coming to them. Of course throw historical accuracy out the window shortly after the film begins, which is alright by me, there are enough "based on a true story" films about WWII, and if every year it seems we need at least one film on the subject, I'm glad it's Tarantino. However the fact that Jackie Brown and Kill Bill were both ignored goes back to my Reader complaint about the Academy's love affair with the second World War. I don't see the film winning, but certainly glad it's nominated.

7. Precious - Here's a film that I really, really didn't want to see. Despite hearing it being praised far and wide even being named Rolling Stone's film of the year, I couldn't get myself excited about it. The subject matter seemed like the depressing stuff of Oscar dreams. Watching it I was quite shocked at just how brutal it was. This is an absolutely awful environment that shows all the worst sides of inner city poverty. There is nothing to feel better about and even when Precious leaves her awful mother her own medical condition makes you feel like nothing is going to be really better. Lee Daniels however makes the film one of the more interesting directorial efforts of the year and the style infused into the picture was certainly a relief from all the constant fighting and real life horror. Gabourey Sidibe is a welcome new comer but not sure how much "acting" she did. She just seemed to mumble and meander through the film not showing much of a range. However as an overall film it was much better than I thought and although this isn't a film that calls for repeated viewings it certainly is artistically credible to hold it's own against any of the nominations.

8. A Serious Man - Rebounding from the disappointing star-studded Burn After Reading is this distinctly Jewish Coen Brother's offering featuring very few if any recognizable faces. It has their strange sense of humor and their typical fascination with torturing their heroes through one failure after another. Seeing how this film did practically nothing while in theaters and the Coen's recent Oscar success I can't see this getting the top prize, however it is a quite good film. After all few filmmakers have proven themselves as durable and constantly interesting as the Coens. This films selection here seems part tribute to the filmmakers and that plea for credibility that not every film nominated is a big budget star driven affair. As directors Joel and Ethan Coen are in top form here which makes me a little disappointed that they weren't able to get a best directing nomination. Although this is a depressing story it doesn't weigh you down the way Precious does, it's more black comedy where you have to laugh at the never ending stream of misfortune that befalls our lackluster hero.

9. Up - Well before everyone starts thinking I hate every film, let me say this is in my opinion the best film of 2009. I haven't seen enough films from the year to make a well informed top 10, but I didn't see anything better the past year. I'm not sure whether it's a good or bad thing for the state of Hollywood that Pixar is continuously making the best films around. Unfortunately since establishing a best animated feature Oscar, the best they can ever seem to do is win that award which could very well be renamed The Pixar Oscar. Up was light years above (no pun intended) nearly every other film I saw last year (similar to The Incredibles 5 years earlier). The story was funny, exciting, and deeply heartfelt and emotional, which is sometimes lacking in Pixar features. In fact this is the first animated film in decades that I think actually made people cry. It proves that you can make family entertainment that is entertaining for the whole family and not just torture for adults to sit through as kids laugh at people falling and lots of flatulence. Since the film is also up for a best Animated Feature Oscar which means that will most likely come as a consolation prize. Surprisingly that category has five nominees as opposed to the usual three, but that's neither here nor there. If the best film really did win the best picture Oscar this would have as much if not more Oscar buzz than Avatar, in fact the people in this are probably even more lifelike than in Cameron's film.

10. Up in the Air - When this film was first coming out this seemed like an easy front runner for the best picture Oscar, but once Avatar took over the box office, things didn't look as good, plus it's loss at the Golden Globes was another blow. Jason Reitman has been making some good films (although I detested Juno) this is easily his best film. It has the same brisk pacing, the same fine balance between comedy and drama and is driven by good and compelling performances. Clooney is good, but well he'll always be just George Clooney. His two female co-stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick seem to outshine whenever they share the screen. In fact Kendrick seems to be fully arriving, and hopefully this film can help springboard her the same way Juno did to Ellen Paige. I loved the film and would not be disappointed at all if it did sneak away with the top prize. Perhaps the same reason the film is excellent is the same reason it might not hold up as well, because it is so definitive of our times. This is the most timely film released this year and would serve as a nearly perfect snapshot of what America was about in 2008-09. For that reason though in five or ten years this might seem dated but that's a matter for time to decide, but even timely films can still be compelling years after their contemporary relevance (Casablanca probably the biggest example).

So that's my two cents on this year's crop, lets see who wins and I'll try and respond to what should have won and what great travesties were committed.

Welcome to My World of Film

Hi there everyone reading, my name is David Holland and I've been a passionate cinephile for the better part of a decade. I've created this blog to ruminate on all things related to my film viewing. There will be reviews, essays, ratings, rants, and just about anything else related to film. I am not a professional critic (no one has paid me for my opinions) or any official academic (I'm not teaching any courses) I'm just passionate about cinema. Not to say that the future won't hold some position in one of those fields, here I am to share my unfiltered thoughts and opinions about the movies I see, the film makers I love, and the occasional gripe about everything wrong with the business. I've chosen to name it "My World of Film" for a few reasons:
1. It is after all "my world" no one else is writing for this site and the opinion is a one way street.
2. I will focus on the "world of cinema" not limiting myself to mainstream Hollywood or the latest popcorn release. That said I do try to keep up on what's happening in the world of film and will offer my reviews and insight into whatever recent films I happen to catch.
3. Although I happen to have another obsession with baseball (that's another site altogether) I will try to keep my postings related to cinema and all the wonderful aspects of it.

Now welcome to my site feel free to comment let me know (respectfully I hope) whether or not you share my opinions or disagree with something I say. If I have misquoted someone or perhaps have a typo, wrong year, misspelled name, etc I will certainly correct the error. This isn't entirely academic so often my writings could just be un-researched thoughts flying out of my head. So there's a million things I'd like to add, so let's just start blogging.