Sunday, November 28, 2010

Top Ten of 2009 amongst other things.

The Young Victoria

November 28th, 2010 and I've started wondering, where are all the Oscar contenders? With a little more than a month to go in the year I would have expected a few worthwhile films to start showing up, but either the contenders aren't getting a lot of support or they're still coming. 2002 saw the majority of Oscar contenders released extremely late, I believe three of the five best picture nominees were released in the final week of the year. Perhaps 2010 is shaping up to be a similar year. That said I'm still far ahead of schedule in terms of total films seen than I was this time last year. Now that doesn't mean I'm an expert this year, but probably speaks more to how little I saw last year until well after the year was over. Claire Denis' new film is at the Music Box and perhaps I should go this week. I can't seem to wrap my brain around her work. Every so often I see a film of hers that impresses me for reasons hard to explain and other times I leave feeling nothing and wondering what all the fuss was about. Even my favorite Denis films don't seem to coincide with established tastes, I wonder if anyone else out there thinks Friday Night is her best film.

For the last several years I've been relying on the year end Film Comment list, which usually features a top 20 and sometimes even a top 50. The films are much more auteur based and rarely reflect the award season favorites, although there is occasional overlap. Last year's best picture winner The Hurt Locker topped Film Comments' list so again sometimes great films don't even escape the Academy despite it's reputation. Might not be surprised to note that Avatar wasn't on the top 50. The list can be found in it's entirety here. Which brings me to another topic, the best films of 2009. I know that 2010 is nearing its conclusion and it might seem silly to dredge up yesterday's papers, but I do recall months ago promising to deliver my top ten of 2009 and well I still haven't. Amongst all these various lists of the decade it's sort of slipped my mind, and ironically enough the list itself was finished months ago, I just never published it here. So that said I'll post my list, and get back to rambling:

10. In the Loop / Armando Iannucci
9. District 9 / Neill Blomkamp
8. The Girlfriend Experience / Steven Soderbergh
7. Police, Adjective / Corneliu Porumboiu
6. Antichrist / Lars Von Trier
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox / Wes Anderson
4. Two Lovers / James Gray
3. Paranormal Activity / Oren Peli
2. Up / Pete Docter
1. The Young Victoria / Jean-Marc Vallée

Well some familiar faces on that list I'm sure, and a few films that you might scratch your head at, and perhaps a few that you might not have heard of. Now typically I would justify each entry, but I'd rather overview the list at once. For the majority of the year I didn't have a lot of front-runners for my list. Up was a clear front runner for the best film of the year, a title it held for quite a while, but from reading the list I did find one film better, but more on that later. Paranormal Activity is certainly not "critic" faire, and one film that seemed noticeably absent from many best films of the year lists. A sequel came out this year which didn't soil the legacy of the first but did little to do anything but remind me how amazing that film was. I've seen a LOT of horror films, most of them pretty damn bad. I don't watch every slasher that comes out, and don't even get me started on the Saw films, from Caligari to Paranormal Activity I haven't missed pretty much any of the "important" horror films. In that long lineage there are an extremely few films that actually scared me. Now as a young kid a film like It traumatized me for weeks on end, but can't say in my adult years any film had actually scared me. Paranormal Activity did just that and for that reason alone I had to have it on my list, great genre films are hard to find, and ones that good are nearly impossible.

Now it might seem petty that in a year with 10 best picture nominees from the Academy that I would agree with only two of them. I could argue that it's more the result of Academy oversight than elitism on my part. The Academy has had a long history of ignoring films released early in the year, which I'll use as the excuse for the snubbing of The Girlfriend Experience and Two Lovers. Truth be told I'm not sure The Girlfriend Experience would have gotten much attention anyways, although I doubt any film from the past year could possibly sum up the state of the nation more aptly. Soderbergh had mysteriously floated under the radar since winning an Oscar for Traffic, although I'm certainly in favor of his King Vidor approach to cinema. James Gray's film was released in winter of 2009 which is a dark abyss for any potential award contender. The subsequent meltdown of its lead actor Joaquin Phoenix may have tarnished what he professes to be his last screen performance. Damn shame because although no one seemed to notice it, the film is incredible, and Phoenix and Paltrow could have easily been given nominations at least. No amount of arguing will ever convince me Sandra Bullock was better in the Blind Side or that Meryl Streep needed her 50th best actress nomination for Julie and Julia. Oh well politics still rule the day I guess although they're certainly worth hunting out if you'd like a few honest films that may actually move you.

Lars Von Trier was in rare form with Antichrist which was perhaps the most baffling film I saw from 2009. Willem Dafoe is always worth watching no matter how ridiculously over the top he sometimes gets, and in the hands of a master of melodrama like Von Trier he's brilliant. Unfortunately my American dominance continues, with only one foreign language film. There are some great things happening in Romanian cinema lately, and for my money Police, Adjective might be the best film yet. If you're looking to do some quick catching up, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; 12:08 East of Bucharest; and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. The films dry humor and slow pace might not be fit for everyone, but for my money it was the best foreign language film of the year. The Dardenne's film Lorna's Silence nearly made the list as well, so feel free to hunt that out as well.

In the Loop was for my money the funniest film of the year. It's dialogue was great and as a political satire it's pitch perfect. Fans of Wes Anderson won't really need justification for Fantastic Mr. Fox whose unique animation style went well with a very clever fable. Any other year it would easily be the best animated film of the year, but damn it if Pixar doesn't strike again. I'm still yet to see The Secret of the Kells, which didn't even hit theaters here until this year, but shared a best animated feature nomination with Fox and Up.

So how about that number one? The Young Victoria was something of an afterthought for me. It got some good reviews, but was relegated to a few technical Oscars. I typically loathe period costume dramas particularly Victorian era and with royalty as main characters. With that said The Young Victoria was facing a severe uphill battle, the fact that I liked the film was amazing, but I wouldn't have guessed it would be the best film of the year. Perhaps 90% of all films are essentially boy-meets-girl stories. There are always variations of this theme, perhaps the love story is secondary but well if decades of pop music and films have taught us anything, there is nothing more powerful than a REALLY good love story. I was sold on these characters, prisoners of their class in some ways who build ever so slowly a real, solid love. In terms of the look of the film it is without peer and deservedly took home an Oscar for it's costumes. For me this is the period film that could, one to triumph over the typically pedestrian constraints of its well known subjects. Maybe I'm more romantic than I let on, but I cant' think of a higher recommendation for the film than saying it was the best 2009 had to offer. Emily Blunt and especially Rupert Friend are outstanding in their roles, and as the above picture would indicate, they looked quite good in their roles to boot.

So hopefully it won't take me until next November to post my ten best of 2010, so come on Hollywood bring out those Oscar hopefuls already.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

For many years Stanley Kubrick has gotten a bum deal on DVD. Sure all of his films from Killer's Kiss through Eyes Wide Shut are available, but very few of them have anything to offer beyond a decent transfer. So it is odd that the best DVD of any of Kubrick's films happens to be the most disregarded film of his career. It may also be honest that the least characteristic DVD is for his least characteristic film. A few special editions later and another Criterion treatment for Paths of Glory and the situation has improved dramatically. Spartacus is legendary for numerous reasons, it was a massive production, it garnered plenty of awards, its screen credit to Dalton Trumbo effectively ended the Hollywood blacklist, its restoration set a new standard in film preservation, and of course it was the last film Kubrick made before his self imposed exile to England.

With this type of reputation and so much surrounding the film before anyone even sees it, it is very hard to take a fresh look at the picture. I remember the first time I saw it, unaware of most of these stigmas, I considered the film a poor man's version of Ben-Hur. Spartacus isn't Ben-Hur just like Stanley Kubrick isn't William Wyler. Both men were perfectionists, but each had a much different approach, and Wyler despite being showered with Oscars in his career, never did earn the long term respect and esteem that critics have assigned Kubrick. So what happens when you take an art house director and give him all the resources of a major studio and their biggest production of the year? Well you get a well executed film. Kubrick shows his versatility and his ability to adapt. For people who believed that he needed massive amounts of preparation and had to reshoot every scene every possible way before he was satisfied may want to check this film out. It was made on a tight budget, under a strict shooting schedule, and was a remarkably collaborative effort.

Listening to the commentary on the DVD, nearly everybody takes credit for everything on it, except one man. Howard Fast was the author of the book on which the film was based, and he has condemned the film on nearly all grounds. Fast was replaced by Trumbo because he was incapable of adapting his own book. Therefore he takes great pains to point out what was changed and why he thinks that he did it better in the book. The one moment he seems proud of in the film is during Spartacus' initial gladiator battle with Draba (Woody Strode). Draba's death at the hands of Crassus (Laurence Olivier) was one of many, many scenes edited out because of the blood splattered reverse shot. You hear throughout the commentary just how much was cut, and the result is baffling. Being accustomed to modern pictures, most of the footage cut seems to be nitpicking. I'll admit some of the film probably should have been trimmed, because unlike most of Kubrick's films, Spartacus' 196 minutes don't fly by.

The pacing seems off, because of the numerous hands that got on the film. The footage that was cut, the footage that was lost, and a cast of actors that all felt that their role should have been more important. Nearly everyone who appears in the film at one point or another wrote additional lines and tried to have their part upgraded. Tales of divas throughout make a few chuckles, but again with a cast like this (in one regard far superior to Ben-Hur) you can't be surprised that some actors didn't want a little more attention. The actors present give great performances. Ustinov and Laughton have a remarkable rapport with each other. They have a unique chemistry which from Ustinov's own account was the result of much rehearsing. In many ways they come off as old friends, the same way one has to laugh at Laughton's back and forth tug-of-war with Elsa Lancaster in Witness for the Prosecution.

Douglas' characteristic intensity seems made for this type of role, and although I always thought him a little old for the part, he has a commanding presence that makes him appear a natural leader as Spartacus. He never really seems to get comfortable in chains, but there are moments throughout when he sheds a little human side that make for quite touching passages. The first of these is when Varinia (Jean Simmons) is pouring him wine in the gladiator camp, and he stops her and gently touches her hand. This connection is renewed later following Varinia's obligatory bathing scene, which of course leads to Spartacus Jr. coming out at the end. The man is born a slave, and is treated like an animal at the outset. In fact he even looks like an animal when we first see him, covered in dirt, in rags, in desperate need of a shave. He doesn't look too far removed from the apes at the beginning of 2001. The goal is gradually to humanize him as the film progresses, with his final moments, sacrificing Antoninus (Tony Curtis) with his first and only look at his child completing the cycle.

As a production there are numerous tricks used to convey opulence and splendor in a blockbuster production. Matte paintings are used throughout, and I never noticed that ancient Rome is in fact about 90% matte painting. If it hadn't been pointed out in the commentary I wouldn't have noticed that half of the Roman Legions during the decisive final battle was actually a duplicate matte painting of the moving troops (the row of legions behind don't move). I think part of the credit for these flawless tricks come from the restoration work which so painstakingly matched every shot and quite possibly fixed the color comparisons between the two, making for a less obvious contrast as opposed to other films of the period with more noticeable backgrounds. Hearing about the particular job of restoring this film made me not jealous for those involved in the project, it sounded like absolute agony, but what a fine result.

Kubrick the auteur doesn't have a great deal of time to shine here. However look hard enough and there are enough complicated, well choreographed tracking shots to suit the standard Ophuls fan. There unfortunately isn't a great deal for deep focus composition, because of the technical limitations at the time for shooting in such a wide aspect ratio. The film does have a decent amount of closeups however, which isn't too common with a film of this size. However most of the film is composed of long shots where we get to see "everything that's going on". However one may believe that in the case of this film some of the longer shots may have been choreographed to save valuable time shooting scenes over and over from different angles for coverage. On the other hand, looking at every other film of Kubrick's this practical application seems an inaccurate one.

Spartacus is still a flawed film though. I find it a bit of a mess. It is overly long, and some scenes are dreadfully unnecessary. The famous oysters scene is completely pointless in the film, and despite the controversy surrounding it should have probably been left on the cutting room floor in the restoration. There also seems to be an ongoing battle in the film for entertainment vs. historical accuracy that makes some things inauthentic, and other moments boring. The only time the matte paintings are distractingly obvious comes after the final fight when Crassus and Batiatus are surveying the dead. The whole shot looks like a dreadful soundstage and breaks some of the allure and continuity in it. As a historical epic Spartacus is a remarkable achievement, but I think that it is too much. The cast is too good, the scale too large, and the length too long. A little moderation would have served this film well, but you never help but feel like you are trying to be forced into thinking the film is spectacular.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Best of the Decade - The 80s

Ugh, another decade and what at first seemed a somewhat simple task turned into agony. Nearly a week ago I thought I had wrapped up my research, and then I decided to watch one more film, then one more, then another, etc. My hope was to uncover that one remaining film to crack the list and I believe I did. Oh well you can only fit ten right?

Now the 80s have gotten a lot of bad pub as a decade of excessive cinema, an era were Hollywood blockbusters took over, the personal cinema of expression was gone, international film movements lacked the revolutionary call to action that the previous decades had. I imagine that in the 20 years since that decade ended the opinion has changed dramatically. Sometimes it takes awhile for a film movement to really draw attention to itself. Many people were “hearing” of the films coming out of Taiwan in the 80s into the early 90s but most of these films received scant distribution and rarely released in any home video form. Taiwan became one of the last countries to have a “new wave” and with the films of principally Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien Taiwanese cinema was officially on the map. Despite the proliferation of DVD, VHS, and now Blu-Ray these particular films remain extremely hard to come by. Only in the age of the internet with enterprising young uploaders can some of the films be found, and sadly it seems many of Yang and Hou’s films can only be seen via grainy bootlegs.

The other major film movement that emerged in the 80s came from Iran. Iran became largely the first Middle Eastern country to establish a critically acclaimed cinema worldwide. Of course most official policy banned nearly all the films that wound up winning awards but the films coming out of Iran in the 80s primarily from Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami served as a second coming of neorealism to many critics. Both directors had their own international breakthroughs in the 90s so for many the discovery of Iran’s great wave of cinema was done posthumously, although they haven’t exactly stopped making worthwhile films. Not since Youssef Chahine had their been a recognized cinematic auteur from the Middle East. Their films started opening the door ever so slightly to films of neighboring countries and offering a refreshing perspective of life in Iran that Westerners know so very little about.

Although Taiwan and Iran may have been the freshest new faces to the international festival circuit plenty of other countries were making waves cinematically. Hong Kong slowly started moving from the world of martial arts to modern action with a string of films from John Woo and producer-director Tsui Hark among many others. Not to sound repetitive many of these Hong Kong action films gained notoriety in the 90s as a source of inspiration for nearly every action film made in Hollywood. Frantic editing, slow motion, and an absurd amount of casualties were the norm to the point that nearly every filmmaker in Hong Kong had to conform. Wong Kar-Wai’s first film As Tears Go By bears nearly all the marks of a generic Hong Kong action film, but he’s a director who I’ll get into more next decade.

Mainland China emerged from decades of obscurity with their now legendary 5th Generation of filmmakers. In a brief period of openness new filmmakers were able to make films about China’s past, sometimes critical, not always flattering, and of course often times banned. However with Chen Kaige’s The Yellow Earth, Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum, and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief Chinese film was finally being seen and recognized outside of national borders, and all too often not inside of them. You can say what you will about Kaige and Yimou’s recent work but it’s hard to deny that these were to extraordinary talents that had a whole lot to say in the 80s.

In many ways the decline of communism was being reflected in Eastern Europe cinema. Several directors left for the west and the Soviet Union’s greatest director since Eisenstein (or possibly even better) Andrei Tarkovsky made his final two films outside of the Soviet Union before dying in 1986. Sergei Paradjanov also made his final film, the notably limited Ashik Kerib in 1988 before dying in July of 1990. The USSR wasn’t completely without note though, Elem Klimov made his best and final film in 1985 with Come and See, although he wouldn’t pass away until 2003. Still these would seem like major triumphs compared to the scant output of cinema in the 90s. The 80s are also of note because of the slow but steady emergence of Alexander Sokurov, who would make a much larger splash a few years later.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe Krzysztof Kieslowski was emerging as Poland’s best filmmaker since Andrzej Wajda who made his longest and perhaps greatest film in 1988 with the ten part Decalogue before leaving the iron curtain. Emerging from the tradition of Miklos Jancso was Bela Tarr who began to slowly find his voice in the early 80s before finally settling one what has been his distinct style with Damnation in 1987. Always a proponent of black and white and absurdly long takes his films are yet to attract much of an audience but his fans are certainly enthusiastic.

Theo Angelopoulos was in many ways Greece’s answer to Tarr, who continued to make his own brand of slower paced bleak dramas, eventually bringing home a few festival prizes for his films Voyage to Cythera, The Beekeeper, and Landscape in the Mist which might very well be his best film. Like all too many European directors of this time his fame was largely of reputation, the golden age of foreign film acceptance in the US was long forgotten.

Some of the luminaries who first brought attention to foreign cinema decades earlier were still working in the 80s and quite a few times making outstanding work. Akira Kurosawa directed the great Kagemusha and Ran, Ingmar Bergman made what many consider his ultimate film Fanny and Alexander, Federico Fellini had something of a comeback with Ginger and Fred, and Satyajit Ray continued to prove he was India’s greatest filmmaker with films like The Home and the World.

The 80s were a decade of two major trends in distribution. Most notably was the advent of VHS. Gone were expensive and cumbersome home movie projectors and pricey 16mm prints, and in its place were VCR’s and cassette tapes. Although the quality left much to be desired, it’s importance to the study of film history can never be overestimated. With VCR’s came cable TV and people could now record those oddball classics shown at 4am rather than stay up late to catch ‘em. By the end of the decade laser discs were coming out as the next and much better step in home video, although due to their bulk they never really took off, but certainly set the stage for the future DVD revolution. Along with home video came a remarkable increase in film festivals. Many independent films and foreign films were getting widespread attention at fests and these small gatherings began to attract larger and larger crowds, exemplified in the Sundance festival where more than a few discoveries were made.

Among the new wave of American independent filmmakers were Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, John Sayles, Wayne Wang, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, and the Coen brothers among many others. Many went on to big budget Hollywood careers but all started as independent filmmakers working on modest budgets with a unique perspective and something to say and their films in the 80s have stood up far better than the traditional pedestrian Oscar faire of the same time.

American film in general was more than John Hughes, Steven Spielberg, and Top Gun. David Lynch began the decade with the Oscar friendly Elephant Man, then the catastrophic Dune, and finally some bit of redemption with Blue Velvet before making Twin Peaks. Along with the Coens and Tim Burton, he was the most unique talent to emerge in the decade. In short order though the work of already established directors like Woody Allen, Philip Kauffman, Sydney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, and Martin Scorsese.

Over in Britain a few filmmakers were emerging as well. Peter Greenaway stepped up from the shadow of his structuralist past when he made such remarkable cinematic puzzles like The Draughtsman’s Contract, Drowning by Numbers, Belly of an Architect, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Not to be outdone Stephen Frears, Terence Davies, James Ivory, Neil Jordan, Derek Jarman, and American exile Terry Gilliam helped established a very vital new British cinema. A few previously established directors like Nicholas Roeg, John Boorman, and of course Stanley Kubrick made some of their best work in the 80s. The British produced Chariots of Fire and Gandhi remarkably won back to back Oscars for best picture proving that international acceptance of British cinema was at an all time high.

Although documentaries are verboten on these lists it is worth noting that in the 80s a new wave of pseudo-documentaries began to emerge blurring the lines between fact and fiction in ways that surpassed even Robert Flaherty’s cinema of recreation. Two films in particular Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line and Michael Moore’s Roger and Me aren’t even called documentaries by some. Morris’ film helped free an innocent man from jail, and well Moore would prove that controversy would be nothing new in the future to him.

Now I believe now would be a decent time to forego the preposterous idea that I could consolidate all of 80s cinema into one blog post (same can be said for every previous blog). Instead I’d like to talk about the 80s on a more personal level. Unlike the previous decades I was actually alive during the 80s. As such this is the decade where I saw my first films, I’m told my first trip to the theater was a revival of Pinocchio so not exactly contemporary faire, but truth be told I was probably about 1-2 years old and don’t remember it either way. In case you were wondering yes I have seen Pinocchio since then and have owned it on DVD two different times if that counts for anything.

The first film I remember seeing in theaters that I was truly excited for was Masters of the Universe in 1987. Yes with Dolph Lundgren in all his mullet glory I was probably not yet 4 and so extremely excited to be seeing some of my favorite toys brought to life on screen. As awful as the movie might be, and the show was far worse, it still holds a special place in my heart. In fact many of my “favorite” movies of the 80s are personal favorites that may or may not receive any degree of appreciation for anyone who didn’t likewise grow up with them.

I thought in this case to perhaps offer a second top ten of the decade. Not of the “best” films but of some of my “favorites”. These are relative terms and clearly the films that are my favorites I should think are the best but well have you ever tried to argue that Big Trouble in Little China is a “better” film than Raging Bull? Or that Rocky IV is vastly superior to Amadeus or Platoon? So pardon the next paragraph while I expand on my favorite sub-genre of 80s cinema, the childhood favorite.

For many people growing up in the 80s they watched the hell out of films like ET, The Goonies, Short Circuit, Stand By Me, and The Princess Bride. Now I have no problem with any of those films and I’ve probably seen all of them at least 2 times a piece. However I was raised on action, and if there was a ninja all the better. I still drop my remote every time Rocky IV or Predator are on TV, and they seem to be on an awful lot. As a child I re-enacted Big Trouble in Little China complete with sound effects and tried to reluctantly drag friends and family into my re-enactments. Nearly every trip to the video store saw me rent one of two films either Return of the Jedi or Flash Gordon. When I became obsessed with Queen around the age of 9 my love for Flash Gordon got even more extreme.

Whereas most parents try to keep their children away from films that have “thematic elements and smoking” my parents didn’t seem to have the same objections, or my maybe my mom briefly did only to relent instantaneously. It was a father-son tradition to watch every new Arnold Schwarzenegger film in theaters. I’m not sure when this started, but I can tell you after Junior we were much more apprehensive, and yes we did in fact see Junior in theaters. Films in the 80s were violent, much more so than today. Sure horror movies and trendy zombie flicks are all about gore, but generic movies were extremely bloody in the 80s. When’s the last time you watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even Temple of Doom, both films received PG ratings at the time and feel free to do a body count next time.

I suppose violence wasn’t such a big deal because people didn’t shoot each other as much? Maybe it was all gangster raps fault or video games once they got past 8-bit graphics. I’m not even going to attempt to debate this issue, but I can fondly recall going to Toys ‘R’ Us and walking through an entire isle of toy guns, maybe even two. Our personal toy gun arsenal looked like something out of a Punisher comic, but well these are things that my future children will never believe happened, just like I can’t believe little kids used to run around playing with real BB guns a generation before us.

Although trash films were of prevalence in the 60s and 70s in particular, there was plenty of good things to find in the 80s. Lucio Fulci made such great shockers like The New York Ripper, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery. Regular Italian shockers like Dario Argento and Mario Bava continued upon previous successes, usually more bloody and less critically respected. Although as far as zombies are concerned I can’t think of another film from that decade I’d rather watch than Return of the Living Dead.

It was also a unique decade where genre filmmakers got some degree of critical recognition even if most of it was after the fact. Arising from the dredges of serial slashers John Carpenter had a pretty fantastic decade with Escape From New York, The Thing, and the aforementioned Big Trouble. Wes Craven hit pay dirt with Nightmare on Elm Street, and David Cronenberg fashioned a virtually indescribable cinema that somehow someway was still technically horror. I’d wager instantly that the films of Carpenter and Cronenberg will be more frequently watched in 20 years than Chariots of Fire or Terms of Endearment.

Anyways I’ve passed on the personal list of favorites but felt they deserved some recognition here. So I selected the ten best films of the decade in my opinion. Again these are personal choices, but relax Rocky IV is not on the list, although I may one day kick myself for it’s exclusion. Most of the films are films as such but one was originally made for TV which puts it in a unique category for this list. I again limited things to fiction, which meant that Chris Marker’s cinema-essay Sans Soleil was ineligible by my previously established criteria. So bitch and moan all day long this was definitely the hardest list I’ve had to do, and I imagine the 90s list will be even harder, but I got some time for that yet.

10. Brazil (1985) UK - Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam’s post-Python cinema has always been a little messy. Sometimes he bites off more than he can chew and has had several failed productions along the years. Nearly every one of his films is either hated passionately by critics and/or severely butchered by studios. Brazil is one of those typical hard luck stories for Gilliam whose film was a failure, was re-edited, and considered a unique looking film but not worth much under the surface. It took about a decade or so but people started to see the light and well now it’s not so outrageous to consider it Gilliam’s best film and one of the best of the decade. I’d say never before had Gilliam’s wit and vision been so perfectly realized as in the director’s cut of Brazil. His futuristic city has no shortage of wires and tentacles floating about but it works. There’s so much going on that a single viewing wouldn’t do it justice. That might be a cliché but every frame is completely filled to capacity that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to slow the film down while watching it just to take it all in. At it’s heart though is something of a love story, a lot of corruption, a conspiracy, and the possibility that we’ve all been taken for a ride by a madman. There’s so much going on that nearly any philosophical reading you wish to apply to Brazil you can find evidence to support it, which says this film has everything. Except of course for people who only are interested in minimalist cinema.

9. Paris, Texas (1983) US/West Germany/France - Wim Wenders

During Wim Wenders’ self imposed exile from Germany he took his American obsession right to the source. At once a continuation on his elegiac road movies of the 70s and the ultimate testament to it, Paris, Texas is probably Wenders’ finest hour. Sure Wings of Desire which was his triumphant return to German cinema is a masterpiece but I can’t think of another film that sums up what a director is all about than this. Written by Sam Shepard the film takes its time to set everything up. Our main character played by Harry Dean Stanton doesn’t even speak for the first 30-40 minutes. When he does finally say something you get a sense that his words “mean something”. The two reunions between him and his estranged wife played by Nastassja Kinski are among the best scenes in cinema history, especially the second which would scarcely leave a dry eye in the house. Unlike other films with enigmatic loners this however isn’t difficult to watch, partially because the always interesting Stanton has never been better in a film. It’s a rare luxury for a film to set up so much atmosphere, and not bore it’s audience to pieces in the process.

8. Raising Arizona (1987) US - Joel and Ethan Coen

Thank the lord that brought us the cinema of the Coens. Although their first film was a perfectly realized neo-noir, it was their second, and first stab at comedy that reigns supreme. The film is hilarious at parts and has the same type of feel of a classic screwball comedy, something they attempted to do directly with Hudsucker Proxy and failed. Here the characters work, from the most minor bit player to the two leads. Kinda interesting to think the film features 3 Oscar winners in it’s cast, who are all superb. Nicholas Cage’s blank detachment and good-natured dope with no common sense might be the best work he’s ever done. Like nearly all of their films though no character is purely evil or purely good, even Holly Hunter's cop is the one pushing them to kidnap a baby, and you get the feeling that as lecherous as John Goodman and William Forsythe’s ex-cons might be there are moments when they seem truly human, and really dumb to boot. Their loud screaming when breaking out of jail, and when forgetting Nathan Jr. is so over the top it goes from funny to stupid to really funny in very short order. Even more than in Blood Simple though Barry Sonenfeld’s insane wide angle camera work displays a virtuosity completely unheard of in comedy films. They might have scaled greater heights in the 90s and 2000s, but there's no denying the brilliance of this film, or my name isn't Nathan Arizona.

7. Predator (1987) US - John McTiernan

Yeah you thought all the childhood favorites were being blacklisted into that also ran list didn’t you? Well I couldn’t kid myself, Predator simply put is “The single greatest action film ever made”. It’s spawned a couple of lackluster sequels, video games, comics and a whole lot of other spin-offs which do little but to remind us how amazing the original is to begin with. The cast of action stars are incredible, which of course is headed by Arnold, but who can forget the world’s greatest handshake with him and Dillon (Carl Weathers)? The film features two future governors and that guy with the glasses who tells all those jokes about his girlfriend with the big pussy?  That’s Shane Black who went on to write Lethal Weapon and direct some films of his own. He wasn’t even the only future director in the cast (not counting Arnold’s one episode of Tales From the Crypt), Bill Duke (the guy who shaves his sweat) has directed several films including Deep Cover and Hoodlum. Seriously though, mowing down the jungle, Dillon’s arm blown off while still firing, Billy cutting his chest, Arnold yelling, oh hell if you’ve ever had testosterone I should be preaching to the choir here. If there’s some reason you haven’t seen this film, then assess your gender, go to a video store, and don’t tell anyone your little secret.

6. Blue Velvet (1986) US - David Lynch

Oddly enough there was a time when I didn’t think this film was weird. Watching it again, and again, and again, and again if feels slightly normal but what a wonderfully demented askew view of the world. I’ve always had a hard/impossible time talking about Lynch’s work and I’m not sure why. Everyone knows Lynch’s world these days although few things make me happier than turning someone on to his unique vision. I’ve made it something of a mission to get people to watch this particular film first. To me it’s the ultimate in Lynch. The film that best expresses his ever present obsession with the underbelly of suburbia, a film that has a constant sense of foreboding darkness, slightly surreal but not to the point of confusion. He gives you enough to want more but plenty to satisfy. Some may argue he could have used more restraint in future films, but well there’s no pleasing some people. In fact the films dark violence and the fact that Lynch found a way to make people feel guilty watching a movie not because of what they were watching, but because they liked it, gives this film it’s power. There will always be some who frown upon it, but I have no use for them. You can argue for Eraserhead as his one true completely uncompromised expression of his vision (and Lynch himself would agree with you) and you can say future films like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are better, but I don’t think you can find a better place to start than Blue Velvet. Dennis Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth is still to this day the most evil character in film. Oh lord just writing about is making me want to watch it all over again.

5. The Shining (1980) UK/US Stanley Kubrick

Couldn’t expect me to have a party and not invite Stanley Kubrick can you? Although Stephen King wound up hating it, Stanley Kubrick struck gold here. For a filmmaker with a well established reputation to delve into horror and adapt a very popular book might have seemed unnecessary for someone like Kubrick. Most filmmakers start with horror because that’s the only film they can make, and many never escape it. Kubrick took the other approach lending his extraordinary talents to a genre that had been taking a serious beating critically. This film couldn’t have been made today for the simple fact people wouldn’t have the patience for it. It takes awhile before Jack goes mad and Kubrick is in no hurry to reveal it just yet. Things are hinted at, we get glimpses, just enough to scare us but often without any reason why. I’m not ashamed to tell you I had many a nightmare about those creepy ass Grady daughters when I first saw this film. It was with this film that Kubrick first got to use a steadicam and the former cameraman couldn’t get enough of it. He let this freewheeling camera cover every inch of the Overlook hotel making it as much a character as Jack, Wendy, and Danny. I think it’s a testament to Kubrick how many of the film’s iconic moments weren’t in the book including the hedge maze and Jack’s all too quotable “Here’s Johnny”. I won’t hesitate for a second to call this the greatest horror film ever made.

4. The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi (1980/1983) US Irvin Kershner/Richard Marquand

Often forgotten and overlooked as some of the best films of the 80s are episodes V and VI in Star Wars. Now picking a favorite episode of the original three is akin to picking a favorite child, it’s nearly impossible. As a kid I was certainly a Jedi fan, but the older I got the more I started leaning towards Empire. After all Empire not only features the most Yoda for your money, before Lucas turned him into a back flipping CGI monstrosity. Not only that but the majority of the film has Han Solo and Leia doing their thing. Their dialogue is priceless and my single favorite line in the whole saga comes when Han is about to be frozen and Leia says “I love you” he responds with “I know”. Come on it don’t get any better than that. Both films are outstanding and more than expand and improve upon A New Hope. The added characters and action are all iconic, Lando, Jabba, the Emperor, and love ‘em or hate ‘em I like me some Ewoks. As for Jedi, well that film has plenty going for it, not the least of which is slave Leia, thank you nerdy men. Perhaps from an iconic standpoint they might not have the same appeal as Star Wars, but I’d say they’re on par artistically if not a little better. Again though how much can I say about ‘em that you don’t already know, and good lord am I sick of meeting people who are still willfully ignorant of these films, get with the program people.

3. Raging Bull (1980) US Martin Scorsese

#3 oh lord what could be ahead of this? That might be what you’re thinking as the most universally acclaimed film of the decade sits a little lower than expected. It’s no slight on the film itself, I watched it for the 4th time recently and it is truly amazing, but well I’ll start defending the films ahead of it when I get to them. Like many of the other greatest films ever that pop up on my previous lists I don’t need to strain myself for justification here. The film’s fight sequences are enough to get most people excited with the different styles used on each. However Jake La Motta the character is not an easy man to spend 2 hours with. His penchant for self destruction hurts, the way he trains, the punishment he takes, the all consuming jealousy that eventually destroys him it’s a workout to sit through. De Niro’s performance is justifiably legendary and for many people this should have won a lot more Oscars than just his and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s Oscar loss for best picture is still a huge point of contention even if not everyone agrees with it.

2. Ordinary People (1980) US Robert Redford

See how I set that up? I’m one of those people who thinks that the Academy actually got it right in 1980 by giving the best picture Oscar to Redford’s Ordinary People. I’ve watched this film a few times as I have with Raging Bull and well every time I stand by my initial reaction. Ordinary People to me was arguably the most emotionally affective film I had ever seen. Maybe it was shot close to home for me, but it spoke truths and even if these “ordinary people” were well to do I could still relate to the family. Like Raging Bull this isn’t exactly an easy film to sit through from an emotional standpoint but it does have its rewards and leaves you with a degree of redemption even if you know that things might not ever be alright. Perhaps Redford had an ace in the hole with Pachelbel’s Canon as his musical theme, but whatever the reason this is the best American film of the 80s, there I said it.

1. Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) West Germany/Italy Rainer Werner Fassbinder

So did you notice that the top five films on this list (not counting Jedi) were all from 1980? Funny how that happens but I guess you could say I think 1980 is the best year in all of cinema history. I didn’t even include Airplane, which I think is probably the best comedy of the decade. Well for those of you brave souls who’ve seen Berlin Alexanderplatz good for you and welcome to the select club. For those of you who have never heard of it then check it out, it’s actually on DVD now which is something considering the VHS was out of print for nearly 25 years. Some of you may argue that this should be on the list because it might not qualify as a film at all. Conceived in 13 parts with an epilogue the film was originally shown on German TV over the course of a couple weeks. In 1983 it made it’s way to the US where it showed in a few select theaters over a couple days. Now my criteria is simply it’s amazing. This is the best film Fassbinder ever made and the best film to come out of Germany as far as I’m concerned. An epic retelling of Alfred Doblin’s novel. The epilogue is surreal to a point that would make Bunuel proud and Lynch jealous and is the crowning achievement that makes the 15 hours leading up to it so worth it. Perhaps calling it a mini-series can help people watch it rather than saying here’s a 16 hour film. Either way this is the best the decade has to offer, and if you’ll notice this is only the second foreign film to top my best of the decade list.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Well I Did it This Time

Flashback a few days to Monday evening. I was typing up my 80s list, I swear I really was. After making the list and getting a few pages into my overview I noticed my computer was running slow. Listening to . . . And Justice For All it was skipping, this had never happened before so I looked up the task manager. Turns out I had a lot of processes running with the name svchost.exe. I figured one of these was probably too much so I closed it. My computer gave me a 60 second countdown to shut down and I closed everything saved what I was working on an assumed my computer would restart and I'd learn that that was one process that shouldn't be closed. Well not so simple.

My computer shut down just fine but restarting was another matter entirely. In fact five days later it still hasn't restarted. It starts, goes to a Windows XP startup screen, then back to the beginning, over and over and over and over and over again. I tried to start in safe mode, safe mode with networking, safe mode with command prompt, last known configuration that worked, debugging mode, tried rebooting and countless other things. I tried to run a HDD (hard drive diagnostic) test and the 2 minute test took over 12 hours to get half way done. Same set of problems with the longer (100 minutes) test that never got past 20%.

As a hail mary I redownloaded Windows on another computer (the same one I'm typing this on), burnt it to a disc and tried to reinstall, but that worked about as well as waving a wooden stick at my computer. So I'm nearly giving up hope and well computers die, it happens, but of course I didn't have the foresight to save my word documents on to an external hard drive, so it might be goodbye, director index, films by year, and previous writings. It's happened before and it never gets easier to swallow.

So perhaps I'll start from scratch again, type up the next top ten list. Maybe I'll think of another way to fix my computer that might possibly work, or a way to save my documents and just junk my frequently troublesome laptop altogether.

In the meantime I have begun my 90s research, and as an added bonus started a Coen brothers marathon partially because nearly all of their films can qualify for my best of the decade lists and also because I'm psyching myself up for True Grit. I've been enjoying tremendously revisiting some of my favorites, and numerous films that just deserved a second look for whatever reason. I know that the more contemporary my list(s) gets the more people will disagree with nearly every choice, but so be it, I'm sure I wouldn't agree with your list either.

So accept my lame apology for a self inflicted bit of idiocy on my part, and know that more of my witty film writing is just around the corner.

btw if anyone knows anything about fixing this particular problem don't hesitate to let me know