Monday, January 24, 2011

They Shoot Pictures Don't They?

Well one of the few joys to accompany the frigid cold month of January is the annual updating of They Shoot Pictures Don't They's top 1000 films list, herein after referred to as TSPDT. This year's update can be found here, see how well you do. Every January they take as many greatest film lists as they can find and through some strange calculations determine just what the 1000 greatest films of all time are via a consensus ranking. There are always a few updates, but this year's 38 new entries was by far the lowest change since the list has been annually updated.

Perhaps they're running out of lists to find. Next year Sight and Sound's once a decade poll of the ten best films of all time is going to be updated and it's one of those monumental milestones in film canonization. There may be some significant changes, even in the top ten come next year's updates, so perhaps 2011's list is the calm before the storm.

One of the gripes often made by even the makers of the list is that it relies far too heavily on lists and polls from the US and Europe leaving the majority of Asian cinema, and those down in Australia and Africa somewhat neglected. This does pose a bit of a problem even if anyone from anywhere can theoretically select any film from anywhere for a greatest film list, but based on my own local preference I can imagine the troubles when that gets magnified a thousand times over.

My first encounter with the list was probably somewhere around 2005-6. Someone posted on a film site asking how many films from the top 100 we needed to see. I outdorked myself (not the first time trust me) and found I had already seen the top 100. I went on further in the list and went until about 193 before I found a film I hadn't seen yet, which was Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore which has since if you refer to my 70s post quickly became one of my favorites. While beefing up my films to look for list, I went through the rest of the list one lazy day and found I needed to see over two hundred films from the list, quite a daunting task. Sporadically for the next few months/year I watched what I could without focusing too intently on the list, after all with that many films to see it wasn't exactly a weekend marathon that could complete things.

Then came the end of 2007 when I ventured into my quest to see every film from my top 20 favorite directors. It was a grueling several month long quest with 20 individual stops some lasting longer than others but at the end I realized what a singular purpose could accomplish. Then in January of 2008 the list was updated in rather grand fashion, I wrote down what I needed to see and decided this list would be my next objective. By this point the number of total films to see was whittled down quite a bit, but was far from a short list. Thanks in large part to Facets I went through the films I needed to see chronologically, from such pictures as Charlie Chaplin's The Pilgrim to Harmony Korine's Gummo. Along the way two films slipped through the cracks.
The Always Elusive

Truth be told more films slipped through the cracks but at various times I was able to see those. Yet two remained, and still remain elusive. The first was Stan Brakhage's The Art of Vision. Now there have been a few series of his films shown at Doc Films over the past couple years, and two different anthologies of his work released by the Criterion collection. In all I've easily seen more Brakhage films than any director ever, yet The Art of Vision is not one of those. Now from the research I've done it appears that The Art of Vision was a re-edit of Dog Star Man, perhaps the most seminal film from Stan Brakhage. They're both listed as the same year, but I've reason to believe they're two different films rather than two titles for the same picture. So although I've seen Dog Star Man, I can't quite technically say I've seen Art of Vision. For shame this one remains as elusive as ever. I'm still amazed any Brakhage is available on DVD so I shouldn't complain too much but how the hell did enough people see this for it to get on the top 1000, and not just that it's ALWAYS been on the top 1000, no matter how many updates it never seems to leave. Thorn in my side number one.

The other film is one that I did have an opportunity to see but wound up out of state that particular weekend. That film is Jacques Rivette's Out 1: Spectre. Roughly four hours and some change (Art of Vision is also a bit of an epic) it is actually a smaller condensed version of a much more epic film called simply Out 1. Now one glorious weekend in 2007 I watched all 12 hours of Out 1 during it's one and as far as I can tell only screening in the city of Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Two weeks later was the scheduling of Out 1: Spectre which of course had no makeup screening. So I can say I saw a rough cut or an extremely extended cut of the film and all the footage therein, but it's apparently re-edited in a way that makes it seem like a completely different film, at least according to pretentious people who believe the film has a plot to begin with. This one I feel a little more inclined to say "technically I've seen it", but well not under that title. Ironically bit torrent files exist for the 12 hour version which was THE most difficult to find film for decades, but nothing seems to be circulating for the four hour version, who knows?

Class of 2011

These two I check each year and see them slip a little on the list but hold their ground and no at least for one more year they remain on top of my list of films to look for. Of the 38 new films added this year I discovered only three were new for me, and by that I mean 1. For some reason I mistook The Amazing Transparent Man with The Incredible Shrinking Man. By title this mistake is genuine but anyone who knows of the quality between the two films couldn't begin to fathom such a grievous error being made. I figured even if I HAD seen The Incredible Shrinking Man before I clearly didn't remember it enough so watching it again couldn't hurt, especially when the film is a mere 80 minutes long. So I found it nice and quick and watched it last night. When you get over the limitations of it's genre, with extremely corny and predictable dialogue and characters, horribly over the top music that feels like being hit in the head repeatedly with a frying pan, and cheesy special effects that may or may not have been cutting edge at the time the film is a masterpiece. You can forgive simple lines and laughable relationships in a 50s film because you come to expect it, however there is no way a film could get away with that in today's day and age. The film at times is your cold war radiation monster film, but instead it deals with a lot of potent themes of the time and today for that matter. You can make allegories all you want for him being a "shrinking man" just as you can say all you want about a fear of feminism in the Attack of the 50ft Woman. The last half hour of the film, which makes a basement seem like the most terrifying place on the planet is horror filmmaking at it's absolute best with arguably the most gruesome, nerve wrecking, and downright terrifying man vs. creature fight ever. When looking for a little cheese, do yourself a favor and hunt this one out.

Also on the list was Anthony Mann's Bend of the River. Now I was somewhat shocked to find this film was on the list last year, the year before that, etc. I even have the film on DVD and meant to watch it one day, but never put any priority to it meanwhile not realizing it was on my list and had been for quite some time. I've adored pretty much all the Mann-James Stewart Western's I've seen and perhaps I was savoring them too much by putting off watching the last few remaining. Well that ended a couple hours ago when I watched this film at long last. I kicked myself a bit because the film featured Julia Adams in it's cast, yes the same Julia Adams from Creature from the Black Lagoon, arguably the most attractive scream queen of all time. She also happened to have been burdened by a rather bad Universal contract that kept her from making hardly any films of note. However this film made two years prior is worth hunting out for Creature fans longing to see Adams in anything worthwhile. Granted there's a lot less one piece swimsuits in this film, but you can't expect much else in a Western shot around Portland. Stewart is again a somewhat morally suspect anti-hero who nearly reluctantly is goaded into doing right usually by being contrasted with someone even worse. Far greater minds than mine have examined the Mann-Stewart Westerns ad-nauseam so I'll just refrain and say it's a great Western for people who don't like Westerns to watch.

The one true new addition to the list that I needed to see was one of those "aw hell" films. Not because I didn't want to see it, but because I already had the film and was planning on watching it because it was on another list I was working on, in this case Film Comment's 150 best of the decade list. That film was Peter Watkins' La Commune (Paris 1871). Like the Mann-Stewart Westerns I've made a point to savor Watkins work. I first encountered his films when his Punishment Park was recommended in the Village Voice film guide. I was completely blown away with the pseudo-documentary style, the highly political subject matter and the overreaching belief that "this could happen". More of his films were luckily available at the time and I shortly afterward saw The Battle of Culoden, The War Game, and Privilege. Only the first film was truly a "documentary" which borrowed from modern day recreation techniques so it is far from simply a talking head documentary, much like the style employed in La Commune. This film which totals a mere 6 hours in length is about the self governing Commune set up in Paris following the defeat during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. This was the first true socialist government set up in the modern world and was an experiment doomed to failure. Rather than tell it's tale conventionally, Watkins built sets, cast actors, encouraged them to do their own research and recreated the tumultuous times, employing many modern media techniques with his own on the scene news anchors covering the anarchy much like CNN would today. It's a wonderful mix that makes it nearly impossible to define yet proves once again why Watkins films are so special and why I wanted to space out his work as much as I could to savor and enjoy each individual film.

So I'd figure I'd let you know where the list stands, still 998, damn bastards but a whole lot less work to catch up this time around. I can scarcely recommend a better consensus list to work on if you're looking for a year long film project.

Up next . . .

I've toyed with the idea of expanding the 90s list to 11-50, no great explanations just extra recommendations.
Research has begun for the 2000s list and boy there's a lot where that came from.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Best of the Decade - The 90s

Well here we are, enough messing around. This mammoth undertaking has stretched far too many months. It’s January 21st and about 4 degrees outside. For that very reason a nice night to get some writing done. Yet no matter how much research I did and how damn long I’ve had to contemplate this list it hasn’t gotten itself any easier. Here we are as I’m typing this, I actually have 12 films listed, which means two are going to get cut before I even finish. Once again a few favorites have fallen a bit after the years, others have held up remarkably well, and others still have mysteriously gotten better and better.

Since we’re relatively fresh out of the 90s, I haven’t quite accepted the fact that people born in this decade are playing in the NBA and a select few can even legally buy alcohol in this country. For me this is the first decade I saw come and go, and I can’t think of a piece of television, film or literature that didn’t try and make some reference to Y2K and apparently all of us dying or some such nonsense. Well keep this in mind for all you 2012 fanatics. It was also the decade that saw cinema celebrate it’s 100th anniversary, somewhat unofficially in 1995. For that very reason we were privy to an unprecedented wave of historical nostalgia. Everyone was reminiscing, cinema that new frightening medium was a century old, good heavens where had the time gone?

VHS and Laserdiscs (oh yeah you remember those) paved the way to DVD’s and a few select wealthy people were able to throw away obscene amounts of money on HD televisions, but that revolution wouldn’t take shape for quite awhile. Movies were big business thanks in part to obscene ticket prices and a whole lot of merchandising. Action films could be measured by the success of their toy lines, and a great many kid in the 90s had Dick Tracy, Batman, Terminator, and of course Ninja Turtle figures. The concept of a blockbuster being rated R wasn’t entirely out of the question in the early 90s. Despite being less graphic than it’s 1984 predecessor, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day was rated R and proved to be the most successful action film ever made at the time, as well as the most expensive, but that’s a distinction that Cameron has made a bit of a trademark for himself.

By the end of the decade though with the Columbine shootings on April 20th, 1999 movies were an easy target especially when The Matrix was in theaters sporting trench coats like the school shooters, so naturally all R rated films were to blame and somebody had to shield children from these movies that clearly were turning them into homicidal maniacs, but you all know how that story goes.

It was a decade of many farewells. Giants like Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, and Krzysztof Kieslowski all made their final films to varying degrees of success. Yet new directors were there to take their place. Quentin Tarantino clearly made the biggest initial splash with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, then came Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Mendes, David O’Russell, Alexander Payne, Kevin Smith, Tsai Ming-Liang, Hirokazu Kore-eda and many others I regrettably am forgetting.

The 90s also saw the triumphant return of at least one seriously reclusive director. Terrence Malick ended a 20 year drought away from directing when he made Thin Red Line in 1998 which is about the most unclassifiable all star WWII film ever made. Released in the shadow of Saving Private Ryan it was a marvel to behold for Spielberg haters and critics who had been waiting patiently for his return, but completely baffling for most regular movie going audiences. However the film that took the Oscar gold from both of those vastly superior pictures was Shakespeare in Love, and that brings us to our next topic.

Miramax. Bob and Harvey Weinstein founded Miramax in 1979 which helped to bring many previously unseen and offbeat foreign and independent films to theaters. They got their first real taste of Oscar gold with 1989’s My Left Foot. In 1993 they were purchased for $80 million by Satan Disney. Now they had an unlimited amount of money to shove their product down anyone’s throat and god willing they could be relentless. For the good work promoting films like Pulp Fiction brought them more often than not their efforts were a little misguided. The 90s saw two foreign films nominated for best picture, both distributed by Miramax but I scarcely doubt anyone whose seen more than 5 foreign films from the 90s can say that Il Postino and Life is Beautiful were deserving of a best picture nomination. The hype machine achieved it’s peak of power when it somehow convinced the world that The English Patient was better than Fargo and the implausible Shakespeare in Love win. Eventually this rampant and shameless Oscar promotion would backfire and the company would lose a bunch of money the next decade after buying Oscars for Chicago, and attempting to do the same thing for the rather lousy Cold Mountain. Hard to discuss the history of cinema in the 90s without mentioning those Weinstein brothers and the insatiable lust for Oscar gold that so consumed their studio.

However the world of foreign films may have seemed a little passed by thanks to what was getting preferential treatment. The studios who had money to promote foreign faire seemed to prefer really bland crowd pleasing films that might make you nauseous if you weren’t careful. More and more people had to go to great lengths and film festivals to see the real films worth checking, and even in the age of VHS many of these films weren’t easy to locate. For inexplicable reasons Taiwan’s incredibly fruitful outburst of cinema remained almost completely unseen outside, particularly when it came to Edward Yang who arguably made his countries’ best film with A Brighter Summer Day in 1991. However newcomer Tsai Ming-Liang did manage to find some distribution for his very unique brand of filmmaking, and thanks to some international help Hou Hsiao-Hsien saw all of his 90s films make their way over to US theaters and home video. Although no foreign director enjoyed easier distribution than Spain’s Pedro Almodovar whose style began to mature more and more throughout the 90s without betraying what had made him such a subversive figure in the 80s. Although internationally perhaps Wong Kar-Wai made the greatest leap forward artistically in the 90s. After making a somewhat clichéd police drama As Tears Go By, he turned his direction to the lovelorn with Days of Being Wild, and proceeded to form his own style and voice that he’s always felt at home with, of course with Christopher Doyle photography.

I’d like to comment on all of international cinema in the next paragraph(s) but well to hell with it. Since passing my twice minimum rule for my decade lists I generally avoided films I had never seen for research. However this time I was toying around with my list and to buy time I decided to watch all the films I had lying around from the 90s that I hadn’t watched. Turns out there were a ton of them. I had my first encounter with Sharunas Bartas, and then had three more encounters with his work and well any attempt to describe it would make me sound like a pompous ass or full of it, because I have no idea what that man is about, but I like it. Saw a few more Iranian films which only cemented my already very high opinion of them in general, and a few other randoms that helped fill in some of the gaps of international cinema I’ve had regarding the past decade. The sad thing is though that I still can’t shake the feeling that the US completely and utterly kicked everyone’s ass woefully this decade. It was as if the lame pedestrian bland garbage that studios released of foreign films from the 90s like Il Postino was maybe a ploy to make American films look that much better by comparison? I wouldn’t put it past them.

Most of the lists I looked at for research into this particular subject were extremely heavy on American films. Roger Ebert had only Kieslowski’s Red to represent all of foreign film. Martin Scorsese joined him and the only foreign film I remember him including was actually made in the 80’s, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief. True enough Zhuangzhuang made perhaps the best Chinese film of the decade with The Blue Kite but I’m sure the best living director had his reasons. The story wasn’t much better elsewhere, and I’d be lying if I said I had a culturally pleasing list. In fact I’m just as guilty as all those other critics who seemed to forget the other 6 continents when it comes to making top ten lists. So if you have any complaints feel free to dial my toll free hotline at 1-800-AIDS-FART and let me know of your problems with the list, after all it’s my list, and I’m probably a hell of a lot more upset with it than anyone reading will be.

10. Malcolm X (1992) US Spike Lee

Believe it or not I cut this film, and last second decided to change my mind. If you were wondering the film I cut was Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance which in addition to having my favorite title of any film of the 90s also is perhaps the finest indication of how random insignificant events can have profound effects on our lives. So if you complain I’m far too US dominant (and I’d completely agree with you) consider this a two way tie, but that’s cheating so Spike’s film wins by a nose. In fact of the convoluted world of biopics and films of very well known historical figures Spike’s film is remarkable. Told in separate segments with a different visual style he exemplifies the life of the man who would become Malcolm X with an unflinching eye. At times Malcolm is less than a saint but never is he really a villain, perhaps far too headstrong at times, but his heart and his soul tend to be in the right place. Lee held his ground and wouldn’t allow the film to be trimmed of it’s excessive running length, which in the wake of Oliver Stone’s JFK was a concern for the parent company Warner Bros. Denzel Washington should have run away with every acting prize he could get that year, but for some reason Al Pacino was deemed worthy of an Oscar for playing an obnoxious blind jackass in Scent of a Woman. The film remains the high point in Lee’s career, and the high water mark of the all too short lived “New Jack Cinema” movement of the late 80s and early 90s.

9. Natural Born Killers (1994) US Oliver Stone

Perhaps the decades most controversial film is also perhaps one of the most fun to watch. Oliver Stone was feeling the heat for JFK and a somewhat pretentious rendering of the Doors story when he bought a script from Quentin Tarantino and decided to make this comment on media obsession with violence. Like Lee’s film this does contain a clip of Rodney King, perhaps not as different as they would appear. Stone employed nearly every trick he could think of for this movie and it only helps to add to the disorienting atmosphere of the film rather than distracting in the way it did at times in The Doors. His subject never ceased to be captivating either, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis seemed to be born for these roles, which may say something about their inner character, but they are absolutely perfect. The supporting cast is incredible, including several famous people cut from the final film. However Robert Downey Jr. can’t help but steal the show whenever on screen, and seemed to be enjoying the same peyote that the rest of the crew were reportedly on when filming. Rodney Dangerfield has never been more repulsive and possibly never more hilarious as Mallory’s father. You can speculate what you want as to what’s it’s real message is glorifying these criminals or criticizing us for glorifying them but you gotta admit few films keep you entertained better. Unfortunately from an artistic standpoint Oliver Stone never really seemed to come close to topping this, sadder still he started to use some restraint when directing.

8. Fight Club (1999) US David Fincher

As this year’s award season comes around David Fincher’s name is coming up an awful lot. He’s already won a Golden Globe, and I see no clear competition for him to take home his first Oscar for best director as no film seems to be getting the praise of The Social Network. However before anyone new who Chuck Palahniuk was, or what the first two rules or how to make napalm with frozen orange juice concentrate and gasoline, there was a former music video director still trying to prove himself in Hollywood. He had hit gold with Se7en but most were curious to see whether he could top it. Well it helped that he had the best Tyler Durden money could buy with Brad Pitt. Fresh from his bulked up turn in American History X Edward Norton was the perfect foil as the character with countless names but no identity other than our narrator. Reading the novel Fincher seems to capture the world Palahniuk is describing perfectly from the comic asides, the simultaneous delusions and of course the insomnia, paranoia, and wonderful confusion of it all. After double digit viewings it never ceases to impress me and I can’t get tired of it, shame that Choke couldn’t quite live up to the long delay. As critic after critic hails The Social Network as the masterpiece of our time, I’ll point to this gem from 1999 and say that it still says more about our misguided male instincts and consumer culture than any film since.

7. LA Confidential (1997) US Curtis Hanson

Neo-noir is there a more sad attempt at revisionist crap in the world? Perhaps not, but then every so often there’s a film like Chinatown or Body Heat or LA Confidential that restores your faith in this quasi-genre. Buried amongst deafening teenage love for Leonardo DiCaprio and Titanic, Hanson’s film was in reality the best film of 1997, but good luck telling anyone that on Oscar night. To this day I think LA Confidential is the only film I watched one day, then immediately watched the next day, then a week later. It was compulsive. Unlike three hour movies where I can’t remember the main character the second the credits start, years later I seem to be able to recall every characters name from this film. Not sure whose to blame for that but I blame good filmmaking because I cared about everyone on screen and the dynamic in which they worked together. The best films of this kind aren’t so much about “who dun it?” or even the why of it all. Instead it’s about the characters, who double crosses who, whose in bed with who and the little details leading up to it. For that Hanson’s film is incredibly rich in detail. He also found two extraordinary talents with Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe who are two sides of the same coin who each went on to bigger and better things. It was something of an Australian coming out party with Pearce, Crowe, and Simon Baker each getting a break playing native Californians. Kim Bassinger won an Oscar for her work here, and past and future Oscar winners include Kevin Spacey, Crowe, David Strathairn not a bad cast for one film. Hell of a plot, and one that helps resurrect hope for a faded genre just once more.

6. Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) Greece/France/Italy Theo Angelopoulos

Well what good would a best of a decade list be without a nice long pretentious art house foreign film? Since I saw my first Theo Angelopoulos film I was under the impression that Landscape in the Mist was his best work. During my 80s research I revisited it and the film fell a little flat, perhaps I had vaulted it far too high after being exposed to more of his work. So I took a second and third look at Ulysses’ Gaze and well to say I have a new favorite is an understatement. There are directors who love their long takes, and well Angelopoulos is certainly in this group. However some directors like Bela Tarr are about creating mood with their takes, about slowly absorbing you into his landscape and he’s incredibly effective in Satantango. Yet Angelopoulos uses his extended takes in a different way and different still in Ulysses’. Without trickery he can jump between decades, years, reality, fiction, and all manner of things. It’s beyond the most complicated cinematic staging I’ve ever seen in all of cinema and probably doesn’t get as much praise as it should, but good heaven’s Angelopoulos flexes his muscles like never before here. Harvey Keitel who had quite an impressive run on art house films in the early 90s gives his audience what they’ve come to expect whether or not they asked for it by going full frontal and having a primal scream session. Everything has a higher meaning in his search for missing reels of film from Greek movie pioneers. So when random encounters seem to be far too advanced Angelopoulos is dealing with archetypes and there are more than a few illusions to Homer’s Odyssey. Describing the plot and the many twists and labyrinths that pop up would do little but confound you, this is a full body experience and get ready to shed a few ideas of conventional storytelling, if you can dig the slightly ambitious art house film, there might not be a better one than this.

5. Schindler’s List (1993) - US Steven Spielberg

A lock to make my list since I first started watching “real” movies I’m a little surprised it fell this far. After revisiting it for the first time in several years I was still very much impressed by it, this time more by the technique than simple narrative which was my primary focus so many years ago. I tried looking at the details of this film more, and this time I started to see just how Spielberg depicted all his characters. Believe it or not they are almost all caricatures. His Nazis come complete with pitchforks and devil horns and his Jews are money grubbing, greedy, selfish, and deceitful. Perhaps Schindler is the only one who gets to have any depth as he’s clearly conflicted. He can justify exploiting Jewish workers all he wants because they cost a quarter of what Polish workers would, but being too friendly will make him sympathize with the enemy. He realizes that money solves every problem and is bribing everyone he can to make everyone’s life easier. We get his transformation so slowly and gradually that we feel it with him. Ralph Fiennes gets a few moments of self loathing but quickly resorts to his old role as the devil incarnate. His role is still a fascinating one and works because Fiennes is such a captivating actor. It’s completely impossible to sympathize with him but for him to let us inside takes a certain skill because nearly everything is morally reprehensible about him. Spielberg is at his best with a lot of action, and the liquidation of the ghetto is one of those magnificent centerpieces of filmmaking that show that technically he is certainly among the best out there. Easily his best film, and perhaps the most important fiction film about WWII made.

4. The Big Lebowski (1998) US Joel and Ethan Coen

There may have been a time where I said Raising Arizona was the best Coen brothers film, I lied. In fact a few years ago I made a top ten list of 1998 and this film was #9. That means I thought 8 films from 1998 were better than it. Some movies win you over instantly some get better with time, and other magically get better every time even if that means you’ve watched it 15 times. I know this film so well I can watch without sound and follow along (did it last Friday actually), there is a “Fucking short version” found here that I can also follow along with perfectly. Like Fight Club and Natural Born Killers this is a film that took a few years to find its audience. After the roaring critical praise for Fargo most critics thought Lebowski was a huge step down. Perhaps a funny diversion, but one viewing could never hope to reveal all that’s contained in Lebowski. It inhabits a cultish world to begin with, after all how many films about avid bowlers can you name? Nearly every line in the film has come up in conversation and I’m sure my friends have annoyed countless people reciting parts of it. It’s perhaps the decades most compulsively watchable film. In fact it’s one of those movies that I watched last week I’d gladly watch right now, and if some friends came over tomorrow and suggested putting it on I wouldn’t object, perhaps while pouring myself a white Russian. After all I do have a shirt of “The Jesus” and I can’t think of an article of clothing that’s gotten more approval. Easily John Turturro’s most memorable appearance, which is saying something after the quite bizarre Barton Fink. Jeff Daniels couldn’t have been better and perhaps the only downside is that I can’t seem to watch him in anything without picturing him as “The Dude”. There’s a reason the Coen’s have so consistently managed to impress us, because even their apparent misses come back to be arguably their best work.

3. Before Sunrise (1995) - US/Austria Richard Linklater

Well this doesn’t fit into the usual suspects of 90s films. Ahead of Dazed and Confused? In fact who the hell even bothered to go see Before Sunrise in the first place? The answer is not many people. The film made about $5 million during it’s initial release, which wouldn’t even pay for Shia LeBouf’s diapers on the last Transformers movie. It is without a doubt the simplest film on my list to describe. Two people meet on a train, get off in Vienna, spend the rest of the evening together, then say goodbye in the morning. Not the stuff of the third greatest film of a decade perhaps not by that unenthusiastic interpretation. However where a whole deplorable genre exists called romantic comedies of which there seems to be a new one every week, and half of them star Mathew McConaughey and/or Jennifer Lopez. I wish everyone who sits through those cutesy pieces of vomit would watch this film its easily the most honest, heart warming, and beautiful film about dating ever made. It doesn’t have that slight air of melancholy that Before Sunset had but all the wonderful optimism of youthful love. Linklater allows his actors to simply be on a date here, with some takes going on for minutes at a time but the dialogue is so engaging you hardly notice the first time around. Hard to use any adjective besides love to describe my feelings for this film. Maybe I see something of myself in it, but more than that I think I see something of everyone in these two characters or an idea of something they’d like to be or have inside of them. In a million years you couldn’t capture lighting in a bottle as brilliantly as Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy did here, it defines a generation while also revealing a side hidden behind far too much unwashed hair and flannel. I’ll shut up, but seriously go watch this film I can’t praise it enough.

2. Goodfellas (1990) - US Martin Scorsese

Sometimes I feel like I have to reveal my pick and take a step back and brace myself for a barrage of rotten vegetables. Other times I reveal a film and say “Yeah that’s what I thought”. Goodfellas is 20 years old already, Christ almighty and almost from the time it came out it was hailed as a masterpiece. Like Lebowski, Fight Club, and the film ahead of it on this list every new viewing reveals more hidden treasures. Not only does it seem to get better it also seems to get shorter. Scorsese’s technique has always been the best and he picks a few moments to shine, particularly the backdoor entrance to the Copa, yet always in the interest of the story. The pacing of the film is incredible and not a single moment seems to drag, unless he wants it to, such as the scene where Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) offers Karen (Lorraine Bracco) some dresses in a dark warehouse. Aside from that the film is always captivating and damn near perfect. Although it’s about a character as self destructive as Jake La Motta it seems a much easier film to sit through than Raging Bull, perhaps because we get a break from Henry Hill’s growing drug induced paranoia. Joe Pesci has rarely been funnier despite being completely homicidal at the same time. Honestly ask yourself how many times this film has come on TV and you just dropped the remote? How about when you hear the end of “Layla” does it not bring you right back to this film?

1. Pulp Fiction (1994) US Quentin Tarantino

Anyone whose heard me talk about films shouldn’t be surprised by this come on. At this point in time you’re probably wondering where a whole lot of other films are. Yeah no Usual Suspects, Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Shawshank Redemption, Clerks, Silence of the Lambs, and a whole lot of other crap. Well hey that’s the problem with only ten. Pulp Fiction has an added distinction too as being the only film on this list I saw in theaters when it was in it’s initial run. I was probably too young for it, I liked it but you can imagine how many of these jokes went over my head at the age of 10. Years later I came to the conclusion that this could be the funniest film ever made, and the interesting thing about it is very few people even look at this film as a comedy. But then again is it a drama, it’s not an action film, then what? Well this is why I hate genre sections in video stores, and I appreciate Tarantino toying with these hazy definitions. One scene in particular when Vincent is talking to Marvin in the back seat and accidentally blows his brains out. It’s a tragedy, it’s incredibly graphic but try not to laugh. Many people have tried figuring out just how Tarantino gets his dialogue magic, at times Tarantino seems to wonder how he did it, but this film, with some credit to Roger Avary who all too often gets overlooked on the part of the script he wrote, this is perhaps the best bit of movie writing there is. It’s structure seemed to baffle people when the film first appeared and it seems funny now how people could have been so confused. On the other hand we can easily lose sight of just how groundbreaking this film was and it seems no matter how many imitators come around I doubt there will be “another” Tarantino. Really can I actually say anything higher than "the best film of the decade". See Miramax wasn’t always evil.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Stanley Kubrick - Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

While amongst my 90's research I watched Stanley Kubrick's one and only offering from the decade go figure? The rest of that list should be coming soon enough, but well who really knows?

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

It is never fun or easy writing about a director’s final film. For some directors they know when their proverbial time is up. They retire, sum up their life’s work as best they can and fade into the background. For all too many others retirement is not their idea but a fact of life to face. Most of our classic Hollywood forefathers simply were put out to pasture. Buster Keaton’s directorial career came to a screeching halt once talking pictures and a new contract with MGM came around. D. W. Griffith was unfairly dismissed as a relic following his melodramatic The Struggle and spent the next 17 years in obscurity unable to find work in an industry he helped create. John Ford was nearly blind when he made Seven Women in 1966 and if you asked him he would have had no intention whatsoever of ending his directorial career with that. For many others though from Orson Welles to Josef Von Sternberg the ends of their careers are plagued with half finished films, promises never kept, and masterpieces that perhaps could have been. In some ways Stanley Kubrick falls into this final category, for no one really would have guessed Eyes Wide Shut would have been his last film.

Between the release of Full Metal Jacket in 1987 and initial production on Eyes Wide Shut sometime in late 1996 there were a series of false starts that dogged Kubrick. Notoriously picky when it came to a subject matter, he would spend forever deciding what he wanted to make a film about, then even longer finding a suitable story to adapt. Although always a screenwriter, Kubrick always used a novel or previously published work as his source material. Like Welles he seemed at his best when adapting someone else’s work, or at the very least the most comfortable. After spending an enormous amount of time researching the Holocaust he was set to adapt the book War Lies into a film called The Aryan Papers, but following the release of Schindler’s List shortly before production was to begin, the idea was shelved because Kubrick didn’t want to compete with Spielberg’s film, which resulted from the lack of box office success Full Metal Jacket had in the wake of Platoon. Seeing the new advances in computer animation he decided it might be time to finally make his long awaited film AI. This idea too began to be a little troublesome and eventually he handed it over to Steven Spielberg when he found his next subject in a novella by Arthur Schnitzler called Traumnovelle (or Dream Story). Much less ambitious than a detailed story on the Holocaust or a science fiction epic this seemed a practical film that could be made without nearly the amount of problems that would plague such larger productions.

In typical Kubrick fashion of course nothing is ever too simple. His casting however seemed to come rather quickly. He settled on then married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as William and Alice Harford who like nearly any actors alive would jump up and down at a chance to work with Kubrick. He had earned his reputation, and perhaps after going a younger and unproven route for Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick may have felt like he needed seriously heavy hitting movie stars to carry his next film, especially considering all the delays his previous projects faced. With Hollywood’s then most powerful couple the film was at the very least guaranteed to get some financing and people would wait, a quality that was essential for a new project from the notoriously slow working maestro.

The film itself unravels in a very deliberate fashion. Before the customary opening shot that tracks around the house, introducing us to all the main characters, and shows off either the director’s wonderful skill in establishing a context or nifty steadicam work, we get just one shot of a naked Alice from the back getting dressed. The shot is short and proceeds to go back to the credits, after which we get that glorious wide angle shot of the couple getting ready to step out to an extremely posh Christmas party of one of their wealthier friends. This opening shot recalls something of the short shots used at the beginning of Full Metal Jacket between credits but I think it’s a nice touch with a bit of shock value to it. People wondering whether their stars will be naked in the film, get the answer before the title even pops up, and we can move on without worrying about just how much we might “see”. Plus the angle of the shot makes it seem voyeuristic like we shouldn’t be seeing this. In a matter of seconds we’ve been pulled in, and feel a little dirty about ourselves at the same time, fast work indeed.

Stylistically Kubrick hasn’t changed much picture to picture or even genre to genre. Since first using the steadicam in The Shining it seemed like a device invented for Kubrick. Few things work better to show vast space, introduce a host of characters, or give us a lot of information at once. However it never really seems in Kubrick’s work that he uses longer takes to draw attention to themselves. This isn’t the opening of Touch of Evil, these aren’t Bela Tarr’s exercises in extreme long shots, or a never ending traffic jam ala Jean Luc Godard. Instead it is to a purpose, and no sooner does he waltz us through a party that he quickens up the pace with a few shorter shots, anything to serve the scene or the film itself. They are a means to an end, and a lifetime of admiring Max Ophuls hasn’t seemed to change Kubrick in the slightest.

The beginning of the film seems like a comic act sexual frustration. While flirting with two very attractive women Dr. William Harford is called upstairs to see to a beautiful woman played by Julienne Davis who has overdosed on a mixture of heroin and cocaine. She is completely naked yet completely incapacitated, the would be entertainment for the party’s rich host Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). No one attempts to cover her up and there is just an open display of nudity here, very European but it is the first time Harford will encounter this woman but not the last time he’ll be unable to have her sexually. Downstairs Alice is drunkenly flirting with an older man who seems hell bent on getting her to disregard her marital vows and although she is playing along never takes the bait. Her self denial is another of the many near misses sexually that punctuate the early part of the film if not the entire picture.

In perhaps the films only real gratifying sexual experience comes after the party when Dr. and Mrs. Harford release their pent up sexual frustration on each other and actually have sex with each other. Seems a small detail at the time, but when you see how much failure is associated with sex throughout the rest of the film, it seems supremely Catholic that only the sex between a husband and wife can go without complications. The next day things proceed at a brisk pace. In a bit of a time-condensed montage it takes the couple through their next day, where he sees patients including a young topless woman who he examines in the company of a nurse, yet another roadblock to sexual gratification, and she looks for work while caring for their daughter.

That evening though things really seem to slow down. Where we seem to feel we’re reaching the end of the day the night and the film are just picking up. They decide to roll a joint as you may imagine some privileged rich people might do recreationally, however things take on an uncomfortable tone. It could be a clichéd married couple discussion/fight. She confronts him about the two women he was so openly flirting with the night before, asking if he slept with them. We know he’s innocent in practice, but we wonder how innocent he is in thought, after all had he not gotten called away to help Victor what could have happened? It is this that Alice suspects as well, and he seems to reassure her more with the idea that he’s married and he wouldn’t have sex with those women out of responsibility to her and not for lack of desire. Taking the “men have needs women don’t” stance she fires back with a fantasy about a naval officer they met on vacation that Bill in his infinite confidence doesn’t even remember. However the seed was planted and before things can get resolved he gets a house call taking him to the house of a dead patient.

Now I’m sure he was thinking, smoke a little pot with my wife, unwind, have sex, go to bed. Now he’s getting dressed and leaving the house late to see to a dead patient. While in the cab he has the first vision of the naval officer helping to remove his wife’s underwear. As the film progresses these visions of the two get more and more graphic. Once at the house he finds himself embarrassingly hit on by the deceased’s daughter. Confessing her love for him puts him at a spot and she starts kissing him only to be interrupted by her fiancé. It is the second interruption that takes place, but it’s already starting to set up a pattern. He leaves but rather than hop a cab ride home which would leave us with scarcely a plot he wanders around the village. He runs into a slightly clumsy but incredibly attractive prostitute named Domino played by Vinessa Shaw and the two go to her apartment. They make an arrangement, put on some music, but before things go to far Alice calls and the mood is spoiled. He pays her anyways and apologizes for the interruption. Strike three, he should be out and leave, but well of course not. As we’ll see not too long after, not sealing the deal with Domino will prove to be one of his better bits of luck.

He runs into his old medical school buddy Nick whose playing piano at a jazz club. They chat and Nick says too much about his next gig he’s going to, a rich sex party where everyone comes in costume and masks. Bill gets the password and sets off trying to get in. A pattern of Bill throwing money away has set itself up in paying Domino without actually doing anything. He visit’s a closed costume shop where he agrees to pay the owner $200 extra for the outfit. There in one of the film’s more surreal moments the owner finds his underage daughter played by Leelee Sobieski with two dressed up older Asian men. She could easily be an Eastern European version of Lolita and seems as interested in Bill as those two strange men. Shrugged off in a moment of surrealism, he gets what he’s after and takes a cab where he offers the driver a total of $100 above the meter to wait for him outside. Again he seems to be going far out of his way to have sex when nearly everywhere he went that night it was being offered freely.

He’s quickly found out, partially due to his inconspicuous cab waiting outside the gates, also for the receipt in his pocket, and the second password that doesn’t exist. At this part of the film more questions than answers seem to pop up. Who is the masked woman who warns him? How does she know it’s him? Why is she even helping him? We get a little closure with who she is and it starts to make sense why she would go out of her way for him, but that’s a complete mystery at the time. After he is found out and she intercedes on his behalf he is left feeling like something awful might be happening to that woman and it’s his fault. Before he can think he goes home where Alice wakes from a dream to tell him that she dreamt she was having sex and everyone around her was as well, making a scene that sounded somewhat like a mirror image of the house that Bill just came back from.

In the morning of course nothing seems back to normal. Nick seems to have vanished. The clerk at the hotel is another delightful Kubrick oddity. This is the second time in the film that perhaps a homosexual element to Dr. Harford is confronted. The clerk makes offhand remarks about “big men” coming with Nick holding out his hands as if to indicate the size of their genitals rather than the width of their shoulders. The night before Bill is confronted by a group of young men who run into him and call him a faggot, taunting him as they pass by seemingly for no reason. It’s a moment to shake your head at, but perhaps with the clerk we’re getting some clue into just why Bill is so frustrated, maybe he’s not even with the right team?

Returning the costume we find the young daughter still in her underwear as the two Asian men from the night before leave fully dressed and the father says something about “coming to an understanding”. No one watching that can possibly imagine what type of understanding a man can come to where he can let his underage daughter spend the night with two middle aged Asian men. He even seems to leave the option open that should Bill need his daughter’s services they could be arranged. Nothing is for no reason in Kubrick film so at this point when we learn the mask is missing we expect it to play a role at some point later in the picture, but not entirely sure when or how?

The avenues of sex that seemed so open the night before don’t seem to be there anymore. The daughter of the recently deceased he gives a call only to find the boyfriend answering the phone. He goes back to Domino’s apartment where he meets her attractive room mate. The two begin to flirt with each other to a point where you wonder if everyone is on some crazy pheromone dust that makes them all horny as hell, when she lets him know that Domino tested positive for HIV. The news appears like a shock to Bill, but we know as does he that they never actually did anything the night before, perhaps the warning of safety that should have been heeded at the party should work now. Sometimes the best sex is the kind you don’t get, a shining beacon for marital fidelity to be sure. Nearly all his inquiries into what happened to the girl who saved him or his friend Nick seem to meet with more questions than answers.

It isn’t until Victor steps in that we start to get some of our answers. The woman overdosed, however we can’t be sure that that was the result of her interceding on his behalf. Sure it seemed cryptic and ominous at the time, but weren’t those people in cloaks and masks just a bunch of horny millionaires, not some cultish murderers right? After all this is the same woman who overdosed in Victor’s bathroom during the Christmas party, which at the very least explains why she would have tried saving him at the party. He himself said it was only a matter of time for her. He’s told Nick was put on a plane back to his family in Seattle, but we have no evidence of that. Bill leaves Victor’s feeling like he knows even less and his powerless to figure anything out. They know too much about him, and there was already some bizarre bald man following him earlier, they knew about him talking to the hotel desk clerk, and when he went to the gate of the estate there was a typed warning waiting for him.

If that wasn’t incentive enough to give it up, he comes home to find his missing mask lying on his pillow next to his sleeping wife. The creepiest moment of the film makes us wonder if perhaps she knew anything about it, or if these people really could be anywhere they wanted. He confesses his “thought crime” as it were because after all he never really did anything, but that’s the point. It was her fantasy about the naval officer that sent him on this mad quest and she hadn’t actually “done” anything, still the damage of thoughts and desires can be far more powerful that deeds themselves. She doesn’t take the news well, but things appear on the mend. I will say amongst all filmmakers though, few can lay claim to a more perfect final line of their films than when Alice says:
“There’s something we need to do as soon as possible.”
“What’s that?” says Bill.

The lesson that sex is between a man and wife doesn’t seem to be wasted on Mrs. Harford. The fact that these upper class people use such vulgar terms as “fuck” adds a great degree of nuance to the characters and lets us know that Alice is far from the perfect self sacrificing spouse that Bill may have envisioned her as. Or perhaps I’m misreading the ultimate message here, simply put married people need to keep it in their pants.