Top Ten By Year: 1978


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I pick weak years for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other years from said decade. I use list-making to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve completed 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, and now 1978. Next I’ll be doing 1925.

So, we’re finally at the end. 1978 contained my longest watchlist and the longest time spent on an individual year in the Top Ten By Year project. I was reminded just how much I love 70’s cinema. That it’s not just about New Hollywood and the force of macho film-school bred auteurists. 1978 catches us between two worlds in American cinema. On the one end is the reign of the thinking man’s picture, mid-scale character dramas, revisionist genre play, and expansive rule-breaking. On the other end, this is three years after Jaws and a mere year after surprise phenomenon Star Wars; studios are quickly realizing that youth is the most potentially profitable demographic. Superman is about to become the first film deliberately constructed blockbuster, with the now ubiquitous strategic ad campaign and excessive merchandising. Though we now recognize the overlap between the two, the modestly scaled and heavily auteur-driven genre play of the 70’s will soon give way to the big-scale classic pop genre play of the 80’s. With Vietnam three years in the past, filmmakers are beginning to investigate the country’s very messy recent history. And while we somewhat rightfully refer to the nostalgia drenched culture of today as a poisonous succubus that has only recently swallowed up pop culture, looking at some of the top films of 1978 such as Grease, Superman, National Lampoon’s Animal House and Heaven Can Wait, demonstrates this as an age-old custom.

All Top Ten By Year: 1978 posts:
Poll Results
Movie Poster Highlights 
1978 Movie Music Mix
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1978: A Love Letter (includes Suggested Double Features and Favorite Shots)
10 Honorable Mentions plus Grease

Biggest Disappointments:
California Suite
Same Time, Next Year
Alucarda
Capricorn One
Empire of Passion
Despair
Five Deadly Venoms

Some Blind Spots:
Gates of Heaven,  Perceval le Gallois, La Cage aux Folles, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Who’ll Stop the Rain, The Boys from Brazil, Big Wednesday, The Green Room, Fingers, Graduate First (so sad I couldn’t find this), Lord of the Rings, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Every Which Way But Loose, The Big Fix, Convoy, My Way Home, Crippled Avengers, American Boy: A Profile of Stephen Prince, Don, Nighthawks, China 9, Liberty 37, The Buddy Holly Story, The Shooting Party, The Scenic Route

I had seen 16 films prior to this. I’ve now seen 64 films from 1978.

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1978: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
Alucarda, Always for Pleasure, Autumn Sonata, Avalanche, Blue Collar, Blue Sunshine, California Suite, Capricorn One, The Cheap Detective, Coma, Coming Home, Dawn of the Dead, Days of Heaven, Death on the Nile, The Deer Hunter, The Demon, Despair, Drunken Master, Empire of Passion, Du er ikke alene (You Are Not Alone), Eyes of Laura Mars, Fedora, Five Deadly Venoms, Foul Play, The Fury, Girlfriends, Grease, Halloween, Heaven Can Wait, Heroes of the East, Interiors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, In a Year of 13 Moons, Jubilee, Killer of Sheep, Krabat (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), The Last Waltz, Long Weekend, The Mafu Cage, Magic, The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (short), Midnight Express, Mongoloid (short), National Lampoon’s Animal House, Panna a Netvor (Beauty and the Beast), Pretty Baby, Remember My Name, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna), Same Time Next Year, Satiemania (short), The Shout, The Silent Partner, Straight Time, Superman, Thank God It’s Friday, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, An Unmarried Woman, Up in Smoke, Violette Noziere, Watership Down, A Wedding, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, The Wiz

Key:
FTV = First-Time Viewing
RW = Re-watch
LTF = Long Time Favorite

Mafu Cage 110. The Mafu Cage (US, Arthur) (FTV)
Top Ten By Year: 1978 is bookended with films directed by women. I couldn’t really say whether The Mafu Cage is well-regarded or not because it’s not regarded, period. Hell, it doesn’t even have a wikipedia page. In one way this makes sense; the majority of people are likely to be turned off by this claustrophobic and perverse story. In another way, it makes no sense whatsoever; just where oh where is the cult following for The Mafu Cage??? Come out from behind those bushes, people! There are so few of us (thank you author Kier-La Janisse, whose essential book House of Psychotic Women brought the film’s existence to my attention)! It’s massively fucked up and pretty tasteless, but surprisingly stirring, very intimate, and so very very loaded. It’s also one of the more bizarre and discomfiting fictional realms I’ve ever been invited to participate in. This is really uncomfortable stuff, people (extended appropriation of African culture as characterization and monkeys that no doubt felt some level of trauma in real life from the filming of this); familial support gone horribly horribly wrong. 

Where does The Mafu Cage fit within female-driven horror? Is it horror? Absolutely, (although it’s equal parts psychological chamber drama), especially its incorporation of taboo subjects and the way narrative plays out in regards to Cissy’s victims. It could easily be a companion to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and other psycho-biddy films. Just take out the aging camp legends and insert the apocalyptic Carol Kane.

I’ve always loved Carol Kane but this is a whole other can of worms; she is absolutely unapologetic here. What’s wrong with Cissy? Well, what isn’t wrong with her? She lives in self-imposed seclusion with her sister in a Los Angeles home that recreates the African jungle of her youth. She’s like a child, living off delusions and whims. She says “DUMBSHIT” when provoked, which is often. She screeches and yells a lot. She is possessive, entirely irrational, and in no way equipped to be functional within anything resembling reality. Capable of momentary self-reflection, it’s only a matter of time before she  inverses self-awareness. Kane plays Cissy as someone trapped in her own patterns of behavior, which are unfortunately defined by the death of people and animals alike. She is a tantrum-led woman suffering from severe unchecked mental illness. Her sister Ellen (Lee Grant) means well but is ultimately an enabler, keeping a promise to their father to protect her, shielding her instead of getting her the help she so clearly needs.

Karen Arthur was the first woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series (for a 1985 episode of “Cagney and Lacey”). She was the second female member of the DGA. Arthur does a beautiful job with this material, and it’s a shame the film mostly exists at a video quality level. The film is filled with strangely bewitching images. She confronts Cissy even though we and those around her walk on eggshells in her presence. Montages cement her behavior as part of a cycle. The Mafu Cage played at Cannes, received a good reception and then a weak independent release only to disappear. I’m hoping at least a few people seek it out because of this post.

i wanna hold your hand9. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (US, Zemeckis) (FTV)
From time to time Robert Zemeckis marries touchstone history to the lives of his characters. His success rate varies but his first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, is scaled to chaotic perfection. This isn’t Forrest Gump haplessly stumbling through hallmark events like a walking gimmick; this is a dogged unshakable group of fanatical girls who very much want to shove their way into a national moment; by gaining access to The Beatles on the day they’re set to perform on the Ed Sullivan show (February 9th, 1964).

In my Honorable Mentions post, in reference to Thank God It’s Friday, I mentioned my love for One Crazy Day/Night films (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Modern Girls, Adventures in Babysitting, After Hours, Magnolia, ParaNorman; the list goes on and on). I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a lesser known treasure of the subgenre. It starts at the eventual final destination, with Ed Sullivan’s rehearsal session, and quickly branches out to our core group, made up of obsessives and reluctant and/or opposed tagalongs. When our characters enter the abyss of countless fanatics on the same quest, they quickly find themselves splintering off, and soon the characters are having their own individual adventures.

The most entertaining of these is the soon-to-be-married Pam (Nancy Allen) who at one point finds herself alone in The Beatles hotel room. I’ve grown so fond of Nancy Allen’s bright-eyed cherubic quality over the years, and seeing her lust over leftovers, instruments, and whatever else she can get her hands has become an instantly iconic movie moment for me.

Zemeckis’s debut doesn’t look down on or solely gawk at the devotion of fanaticism; it just hops on the insanity train. Regarding the tone it could have employed, I’m reminded of the recent snarky reactions from people, largely men, towards the collective mourning from One Direction’s largely female fan base over Zayn Malik’s recent departure. I Wanna Hold Your Hand playfully looks at Beatlemania as a phenomenon of ‘hell hath no fury’ fans, but also recognizes that fan bases are made up of individually felt emotional extremes, a very authentic loyalty, and sincere commitment.

 

The Shout8. The Shout (UK, Skolimowski) (FTV)
The only comparison I have for the cryptic and unknowable experience of The Shout are the films of director Nicolas Roeg and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The ‘unknown’ at the center of The Shout, made up of aboriginal mysticism and an unreliable narrative, makes for a disturbing nucleus that resides underneath consciousness. Even the credits are hazy and out of reach.

Like our next film, sound is central to The Shout, employing an innovative Dolby mix to disorient. Alan Bates, who disrupts the lives of a young couple in the countryside (John Hurt and Suzannah York), claims to have attained occult powers, specifically ‘The Shout’, which apparently has the power to kill anyone who hears it. John Hurt plays an experimental electronic musician, and several scenes take place in his home studio as he records various noises. To him, ‘The Shout’ becomes the holy grail of sounds; something he, at least initially, denounces as hogwash. And finally, the score by Tony Bates and Michael Rutherford of Genesis, is an ambient soundscape that further dislodges the viewer. But then, everything about The Shout dislodges the viewer.

This is a world where everything may be a lie, or worse, everything may be true. A world where people can be controlled as long as you have their belt buckle. The cricket game in the framing device carries a waiting room kind of menace, as if this world will end as soon as one team wins. Films like The Shout are the kind I wait and hope for. These mind-fuck movies that are legitimate and hypnotic, fueled by rhythms that defy standard logic and are populated by mysteries that defiantly refuse to be solved.

invasion of the body snatchers7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, Kaufman) (RW)
Philip Kaufman spends the first half of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 film, establishing a paranoid mood piece where the threat infiltrates safe spaces before we’ve even had time to settle into the picture. They may just look like plants, but fuck do they move fast. Everything is in plain sight right from the beginning, covering both the corners and foreground of the frame, and there is nothing anybody can do about it. Kaufman secretly plans to have it both ways by filling in the run-run-run second half with some startling practical effects sequences, allowing mutating slime and atmospheric smoke-screens to give way to each other.

I can’t think of a cooler ensemble than this; Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum and the recently departed Leonard Nimoy who uses his soothing demeanor to chilling effect. Donald Sutherland in particular is in peak form doing his baritone Chia Pet thing.

Layers and layers of heartbeats, electronic white noise and throbs, rain sticks, and clanging and banging push in on us; a contemporary comparison for the cumulative impact of Denny Zeitlin’s score is Brian Reitzell’s ingenious work on “Hannibal”.

My first time seeing Invasion, I was totally unprepared to discover it’s the kind of slick and smart artful mainstream horror that doesn’t come around too often. Full of applicable social commentary, a genuinely rattling air you desperately want to shimmy off, and filled with fodder to dissect every which way you turn.

The Fury6. The Fury (US, De Palma) (FTV)
Pauline Kael’s review of The Fury is one of her most famous because it’s an anomalous hyperbolic rave, a viewing experience that sounds like it amounted to something like an orgasm. Much of the review’s notoriety stems from the generally lackluster reaction people tend to have to Brian De Palma’s follow-up to Carrie. De Palma devotees drool over it, and most others either casually dismiss or actively deride the film. But I’m with you Pauline. I’m with you.

On its face The Fury has a lot in common with Carrie. It’s also based on a novel. It’s also about a girl with telekinesis. It also features Amy Irving. But this one has conspiracies, chases, a father trying to find his son, an Xavier Institute equivalent. It’s a strange brew of supernatural spy thriller! Sound overcrowded? It is; but I love the hell out of The Fury‘s bloated convolution.

Even through its slower section The Fury is blisteringly alive. I can’t explain why, especially because John Ferris’s script (adapting his novel) is kind of a hacky mess, but it all felt like it mattered. Being thrown into the preposterous story, you either submit to it or scoff through it. Sure, the Kirk Douglas material is initially less interesting, but come on, who doesn’t want to see Kirk Douglas vs. John Cassavetes? How can one deny watching the star in his sixties, running around shirtless with a machine gun, and disguising himself to make him look, wait for it, old! And besides, this slowly but surely becomes Gillian’s (Irving) film. There’s also weird pockets of humor. De Palma often opens scenes by zeroing in on peripheral characters, whether it’s the cop who just got a brand new car, the little old lady who delights in helping out a trespasser, or the two security guards who like to trade Hershey bars for coffee.

It’s trademark De Palma to toy around with the nature of cinema, and The Fury is constantly interacting with itself. Gillian’s telekinetic link to the missing Robin (Andrew Stevens who is terrible, but I love sociopathic brat characters like this) is depicted visually, so the intimate and exclusive link between them also includes us. Since Gillian’s visions strike through sight (what else?), she acquires information by watching scenes play out in front of her eyes. She learns, and we learn through her. Gillian becomes, in her way, an audience member. This is cinema as the ultimate form of communication and information (surveillance is a recurring theme here too), something that can transcend the confines of the screen. At one point, Robin is even shown the first five minutes of the film! De Palma’s stylized techniques drive it all home; editing and rear-screen projection are used to emphasize and encompass, and characters are brought together by overlapping spaces and sounds. The camera often tracks conversations by moving around characters, covering all bases.

There’s a bravura four minute slow-motion sequence that turns the notion of the escape scene on its head. It isn’t until the end when we realize the slow-motion is in fact stretching out a character’s final moments. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a better send-off to any movie; I’m serious. It cannot be beat. Don’t even try to tell me it can. It’s the money shot to end all money shots, but shown from every possible angle. But it’s not just showstopper sequences like these that I fell in love with; it’s the whole damn film.

(There is a scene in which a horrified Gillian sees Robin, her face directed straight at the camera, horrified. This is exactly what Stanley Kubrick would do with Danny Torrance in The Shining a mere two years later.)

coming-home5. Coming Home (US, Ashby) (FTV)
Three years after the Fall of Saigon there were two Best Picture nominees that directly dealt with Vietnam. One was the wholly masculine collapse-of-camaraderie film The Deer Hunter. The other was the far more liberal-minded Coming Home, about tormented veterans and a woman who comes into her own politically and sexually following her husband’s departure for Vietnam. People tend to knock Coming Home for being a war film that ‘descends’ into something as ‘cliche’ as a love triangle. Is there any easier way to dismiss a film for daring to be about the female experience of wartime? These are three people (Jon Voight and Bruce Dern are the paraplegic lover and husband respectively) whose lives become inextricably linked through their traumas, their evolution, their bodies, and their love.

The film materialized through Jane Fonda’s tenacity, and her outspoken anti-Vietnam activism prohibits us from buying into the place her traditional sheltered wife character begins. But that doesn’t last for long. Everyone involved, not just Fonda, from Jon Voight to Hal Ashby to producer Jerome Hellman, were heavily concerned with post-war realities. Coming Home is a best case scenario message picture in the guise of an achingly human love story.

This was not a film I expected to have this kind of response to. Perhaps most of all, I had an all-in investment in the pairing of Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. Their relationship, which begins with, of all things, a broken pissbag, makes Coming Home one of the most erotic films I’ve ever seen. The two actors share a vitality that is not only palpable, but supports the core of the film; the basic necessity for people to connect with each other in times of strife, immeasurable hardship, and an unknown future.

Days of Heaven4. Days of Heaven (US, Malick) (RW)
Already with his sophomore feature, Terrence Malick brings his storytelling into the ether, the outer zones. The characters and their drama are contained in something bigger than themselves; the cornfields and the magic hour, and the narration of a child (Linda Manz), mumbling and halting. Her perception is omniscient if not all-knowing. It begins as a romanticized snapshot, not of Depression-era workers, but of what surrounds them. It gradually transforms into something else altogether, a kind of melodrama hiding in plain sight. The central house is like a mirage, and Days of Heaven is triangular, made up of people, land, and machinery, each interacting and needing the other. Like Badlands, there is a honeymoon period for these characters, the makeshift family, isolated but not wanting for anything. “I think the devil was on the farm” is just one of many Biblical allusions. Days of Heaven is as immense as the universe and as microscopic as a single house in the middle of a wheat field.

Satiemania3. Satiemania (short) (Yugoslavia, Gašparović) (FTV)
Visualizing the music of Eric Satie, Satiemania alternates between the mocking hustle-bustle of city life, where outsized caricatures fill the streets, and the melancholy hours where women drink and undress, their bodies of various shapes and sizes, eternally longing for something more. Not only do I love Satie’s “Gnossienne” pieces, but Gašparović’s animation style is exactly the kind of aesthetic I tend to respond to; messy and sketchy, action shown through ever-morphing dissolves as if the nights are forever slipping away; moments are lost even as they happen. The illustrations are exclusively about people, whether singled out in a crowd, pushed together in a bar, or by themselves in their most private moments.

Blue-Collar2. Blue Collar (US, Schrader) (FTV)
Blue Collar is probably the best working mans drama I’ve ever seen. Systematically shattering, from the bowels of an incensed and very hungry monster. These are people at their wit’s end, backed into a corner by corrupt unions, with no exit strategy. Blue Collar is frighteningly relevant in its portrayal of corruption as a trap that sees working class solidarity as just another thing to be exploited, suppressed and dismantled. Paul Schrader, in his debut film, is on the front line with them, never taking the easy way out. It’s direct and didactic and illuminating.

There is the scene where our three characters, played by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, strategize about the stolen ledger. They talk about their options and each guy has a different idea. Three options are presented, yet it feels like they have none. These men aren’t stupid. They see through it all and make a concerted effort to exploit the exploiters. And it backfires. Big time.

The three main actors apparently all hated each other in real life, and it’s one of those things that results in a live-wire chemistry and onscreen camaraderie that authentically sings to the tune of empathetic disgruntlement. We become so attached to them and what they are to each other, whether together in the thick of it or blowing off steam. I sat at the edge of my seat sensing the trajectory of the film and wishing so badly to be proven wrong. Richard Pryor in particular is electric, by turns exhausted and exhausting. So earnest is he in his desire for change, a naive hope that he can make the system better if only he comes at it from the right angle.

girlfriends_sc1. Girlfriends (US, Weill) (FTV)
Let’s be honest, Frances Ha is an uncanny reworking of Girlfriends; narratively, structurally, thematically. Except this is way better (sorry ’bout it). There are hardly any films about women made by women from this era. Nowadays the fumbling twenty-something trying to figure it all out in NYC is an indie cliche. But in 1978?

This is a film to be cherished by everyone who sees it. No lie, my life can now be split into Before Girlfriends and After Girlfriends. Claudia Weill and screenwriter Vicki Polon have created something truly disarming here; an open and honest work about female friendships rightfully treated as life-defining, where change equals tailspin, resentment, and adjustment. It is equally about being comfortable with living alone, being comfortable with not living alone, and trying to build a creative career in a tough racket. The film is unstudied and charmingly choppy, primarily homegrown in its form. And at the same time, it’s entirely assured; the film and Susan (Melanie Mayron) are uniformly comfortable in their own skin, even when on the surface they doubt and fret. There is a painfully sincere and recognizable quintessential harmony at work with no affectation in sight.

The film admires Susan, loves Susan, but isn’t bewitched by her in that familiar way (you know what I’m talking about) where we shake our heads and coo ‘oh you’ at her. The film would be great regardless, but Melanie Mayron as Susan Weinblatt cements this as an all-time top 100 film of mine. I cannot even begin to do her justice. Drowning in hair with second grade glasses and a goofy and frumpy demeanor, she is completely laid-back in her neurosis, and somehow not awkward despite all this. A genuine character, and a special performance in a truly special film.

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Top Ten By Year: 1992


I’m going to get right to it since my What I’ll Remember post covers most of what I’ve gotten out of this year in film. You can find previous 1992 installments including Ten Honorable Mentions Edition, What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1992: A Personal Sampling, Voters Poll Results, and Movie Music Mix on my blog. This one’s been a long time coming. I started research for 1992 back in April!

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other films from that decade. I am using list-making as a motivation to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve done 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, and now 1992. Next I’ll be doing 1958.

Biggest Disappointments:
Swoon
Innocent Blood
In the Soup
Careful
The Story of Qiu Ju
Naked Killer
Once Upon a Crime (re-watch)

Notable Blind Spots: 
Pushing Hands, Unlawful Entry, Vacas, The Oak, La Sentinelle, L;627, Simple Men, This is My Life, The Public Eye, Boomerang, Dragon Inn, Royal Tramp, Love Field, The Wicked City, The Best Intentions, Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, Swordsman II, For a Lost Soldier, Rebels of the Neon God

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1992: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer, Aladdin, Bad Lieutenant, Baraka, Basic Instinct, Batman Returns, Beethoven, Benny’s Video, Bitter Moon, Bob Roberts, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Brother’s Keeper, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Candyman, Captain Ron, Careful, Centre Stage, Chaplin, The Crying Game, Damage, Dead Alive, Death Becomes Her, Deep Cover, Doctor Mordrid, Enchanted April, Far and Away, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, A Few Good Men, Forever Young, Full Contact, Gas Food Lodging, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hard Boiled, A Heart in Winter, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Honeymoon in Vegas, Housesitter, Howards End, Husbands and Wives, Hyenas, Innocent Blood, In the Soup, The Last of the Mohicans, A League of Their Own, Lessons of Darkness, Life and Nothing More, Light Sleeper, Little Heroes, The Living End, The Long Day Closes, Malcolm X, Man Bites Dog, Medicine Man, The Mighty Ducks, Mom and Dad Save the World, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Naked Killer, Noises Off!, Of Mice and Men, Once Upon a Crime, One False Move, Orlando, Out on a Limb, Passion Fish, Peter’s Friends, The Player, Poison Ivy, Police Story 3: Supercop, Porco Rosso, Radio Flyer, Raising Cain, Reservoir Dogs, A River Runs Through It, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Savage Nights, Scent of a Woman, Singles, Single White Female, Sister Act, Society, Stay Tuned, Strictly Ballroom, The Story of Qiu Ju, Swoon, A Tale of Winter, Tom and Jerry: The Movie, Toys, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Unforgiven, Universal Soldier, Wayne’s World, Where the Day Takes You, Wuthering Heights

FTV: First Time Viewing
RW: Re-watch
LTF: Long-time Favorite

PDVD_027
Top Honorable Mention (think of this as a tie with #10):
Howards End (Ivory) (UK) (RW)
What are other equivalents to the unique narrative bounty of Howards End? Other Merchant/Ivory productions like A Room with a View and Maurice (both impeccable in their own right) have recognizable conflicts and alliances. We know when and how to respond to what’s going on. But Howards End is different. We stand by conflicted while characters make compromises and go back on who we thought they were. Those who fall, fall hard, and those left are happy in a bittersweet sort of way. But it’s inaccurate to use the word happy. Happy and sad, light and dark aren’t exactly visible through lines here. It’s all way more complicated. All the characters besides Vanessa Redgrave, who moonlights over the proceedings as if drawing people together from beyond, are defined by their foibles. Everyone is too much ‘this’ or not enough ‘that’. It has the impeccable period design one expects from Merchant/Ivory, it made Emma Thompson a star in her own right (until then, she was Kenneth Branagh’s wife), and is a painfully human vivisection on class warfare.

CenterStage2
10. Centre Stage (Kwan) (Hong Kong) (RW)
For the few keeping up with these installments, my previous Honorable Mentions post refers to a film I’d been particularly struggling to find a place for–a film I’m moderately conflicted about. Well, this is the one. Centre Stage will not get out of my head. This was my second time seeing it, and it remains an elusive relic. Does this film, a biopic about doomed icon Ruan Lingyu that feels frozen in time and comes bundled up in a meta package, even work? Watching it is like going on a quest through the afterglow of the past. It’s a quest the filmmakers explicitly take part in, and they also come up short. Through the research and production process, can everyone involved reach the essence of who Ruan Lingyu was? Well, no. But that may be the point.

Doused in silky blue lights, this isn’t the past recreated, but reflected back at us, nestled between the actual footage of Ruan and present day interviews. Everything feels like it’s being acted out in an empty deserted hallway, as if life doesn’t exist outside the room that characters inhabit at any given moment. We hear the same music in a dance hall at different intervals, like an echo chamber. The characters are stuck in their parts. Maggie Cheung is stoic, passive, demure. The greatest actress of her time can’t make the greatest actress of her time a compelling figure, and yet she’s outstanding. Ahh, and the heaven sent production and costume designs. It’ll be revisited every so often, and each time I’ll go into it thinking ‘this time I’ll understand who Ruan Lingyu was’. Yet I know that won’t happen. ‘But maybe this time’ is the spell Centre Stage casts.

bittermoon
9. Bitter Moon (Polanski) (France/UK/US) (FTV)
Perverse, deeply ugly, and comically absurd. At first glance Bitter Moon is just another to emerge out of the trashy kink, boundary pushing erotic thriller trend of the early-to-mid 90’s. But this is Roman Polanski, and the man has got a lot of poisonous and revealing fish to fry. Hiding behind camp and pig masks, this could be his most uncomfortably personal work. At the very least it feels like a purging. The sex relates to the endless potential of corruptible dynamics. Two couples out to sea on an ocean liner (Knife in the Water anyone?), one staid, the other extreme, have more in common than they think. Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner are the purist form of masochistic and manipulative chess game toxicity that can exist in a couple, a toxicity that Polanski posits exists in all of us on some level.

A big question, especially considering it’s what turned so many off at the time of its release; how much control does Polanski have over Bitter Moon’s tonal makeup? It’s a risky piece of work, less from risque content, and more from an unequivocally bizarre sense of self. Is this a joke? Are we in on it? Is Polanski in on it? Does it obstruct viewers from seeing the unpleasantly complicated statement at the center, or does it enable? Is this the only way to present something so dire and hopeless? I see Polanski as having far more control than he was at first credited. Seigner pouring milk all over her breasts, looking like a zombie by the way, as Peter Coyote licks her with George Michael’s “Faith” playing in the background is unequivocal evidence Bitter Moon is meant as a kind of brazenly sadistic circus. While other 90’s erotic thrillers took themselves so seriously, it must have been quite jarring to see a film that at once does not take itself as seriously, yet contains twisted barbs of resonance.

Expanded review here

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8. Glengarry Glen Ross (Foley) (US) (LTF)

“Harriet and Blah-Blah Nyborg”. “Have you made your decision for Christ?!?”. “Because I don’t like you”. “Fuck the Machine!!!”. “Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch! Will you go to lunch?”. “Fuck you–that’s my name”. “Put. That coffee. Down”. “You stupid fucking cunt”. “Your pal closes, and all that comes out of your mouth is bile. Oooh, how fucked up you are”.

The more familiar you are with Glengarry Glen Ross, which at this point is like my film equivalent of a first cousin, the more there is to get out of it. There’s a giddy anticipation that builds leading up to, well, pretty much every line delivery in this thing. It’s no secret that for all the playing at man, swearing as desperate currency, and the repetitive Mamet-isms of the actual text, this is a film erected out of top-level high-wire performances. Whether it’s Al Pacino fully enunciating and emphasizing ev-er-y sing-le syl-la-ble, bringing off-key rhythms to his Ricky Roma Rendition, or early Kevin Spacey reeling in the unmovable dryness he’d later bring to Lester Burnham, everyone is firing on all cylinders even if their characters are sure as hell going nowhere fast.

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7. Deep Cover (Duke) (US) (FTV)
Neo-noir that deals with race relations and the hypocrisy and political corruption within the War on Drugs with surprising directness. Poetically edged hard-boiled narration delivered with the low steady hum of Laurence Fishburne’s cop who grapples with right and wrong, cop or criminal, and questions where can he do the most good within a cracked system that uses his race as an asset for the higher-ups. Then bring in Jeff Goldblum’s indispensable magnetic eccentricity to his role as a slightly unhinged lawyer yuppie, self-described as having a “condescending infatuation with everything black”. Yes, he’s fighting for power and money, but most importantly for respect among the criminal minded. A very moralistically preoccupied film about choices and compromise and defining the invisible line. I thought I had past my expiration date for undercover cop stories, but Deep Cover nixed that with its ability to balance heady and charged politics with two consistently engaging leads that transcend the walking clichés we’re used to seeing.

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6. Brother’s Keeper (Berlinger/Sinofsky) (US) (FTV)
Brother’s Keeper isn’t about whether or not Delbert Ward actually killed his ailing brother Bill. It’s about the dynamics of small communities like Munnsville, NY, where the Wards are fervently supported, without question, by their fellow townspeople. They put up bail money, hold benefit dinners, and attend the trial with all the muster they have. Part of this support has to do with how iconic the Wards (three brothers total, not including the deceased) are within the community. Some kind of know them, some kind of don’t, and a few know them quite well. The populace protects the reclusive, mostly illiterate, and mentally debilitated Delbert (same goes for all three) because he is one of their own. They are, as defender, prosecutor, and populace say, ‘simple folk’. The big city versus little town friction comes into play in a major way, mostly in how the Wards were treated by the higher-ups during crucial events like interrogations and the signing of documents.

Owing great debt to the Maysles Brothers, who the film is dedicated to, we shift between life with the Wards, interviews with the townspeople, and the anticipation and resolution of the trial. Though the filmmakers are clearly fascinated with these subjects and this story in a slightly condescending way (though I really don’t know how one would avoid it), it takes a non-judgmental stance as far as the case itself. This is incredibly gripping and mysterious stuff, with more questions than answers by the end. The camera expertly observes the Wards in their environment, attempting to understand and not able to truly break through the supposed simplicity, which only lends to its power.

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5. The Player (Altman) (US) (RW)

Ever notice that The Player has more handshakes per minute than anything else you’ve ever seen? This is Robert Altman in the belly of the beast, a beast he’s well familiar with, setting up conventions and then playing into them with bite. The reason this and Bob Roberts represent Tim Robbins’s best work is because each magnifies his smug impenetrability in different ways. In The Player, we see every step the pompous ass takes into the mud bath, unable to touch the reality of his situation because he and the film define it within the confines of narrative familiarity. You can track the film’s progress by the degree Griffin’s eyes have glazed over. In Bob Roberts we can’t touch him at all. Not even the camera can get close to him. In one he’s a familiar monster, the other a faceless one. Both are primo schmoozers.

The cameos fold in on themselves, and soon we’re seeing famous people populating the background as extras (oh hey there Jack Lemmon)! This is more plot-driven than some of Altman’s work, and it has to be, because Michael Tolkin’s script grafts the narrative of old onto satire. There’s an intriguing line the director tows between the subjectivity of a man who acts in the form of plot points (that scene when he hams it up for Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett who just laugh at him is gold. You can see ‘why isn’t this working? It works in the movies!’ all over Griffin’s face) and the outside-looking-in gaze that demonstrates how precarious success is in the movie biz. With Griffin’s job in jeopardy from the start, a constant threat is maintained that drives the picture; one minute you’re in, the next you’re out.

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4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch) (US) (RW)
The first time I saw Fire Walk with Me was a week after I’d watched the show, not something I’d necessarily recommend. I walked away from that experience sufficiently disturbed and shaken up, particularly by Sheryl Lee’s work. As a whole though it felt…overreaching. There was a new Donna to get used to, a first act that mistakes deadpan for deadness, Kyle Machlachan’s all too brief and reluctant appearance, some material that’s one step past nonsense, and a significant frequency adjustment from the show. I even remember saying after it was over, “I liked it, but it’s not my Twin Peaks”. Then I waited six years and watched it again for this list, where it sideswiped me like a “BOB” out of hell.

That gap purged me of preconceptions I had taken from the show. It dumped the residue bullshit of seeking out answers to a world that, being Lynch, is an intuitive and abstract kind of hell devoid of rules or explanation. The film simply became Laura’s story. And that’s what it is. Laura’s schizophrenic, mournful, harrowing end. It takes the iconic dead girl trope and makes her whole, beyond the realm of voiceless victim. It’s the Lynch film that is both most and least tethered to reality. By magnifying the trauma and horrors of sexual abuse (and adolescence) as an actual and inescapable hell, by purifying and heightening the emotions in play, it becomes perhaps the most consummate and visceral film on the subject. In “Twin Peaks”, “BOB” is Leland. In Fire Walk with Me, Leland is “BOB”, and it makes all the difference. The supernatural all registers as metaphor here.

Laura Palmer is real to me, and Sheryl Lee is what makes her crushingly real. If there’s a better female performance from the 90’s, I haven’t seen it. She turns herself inside out as Laura, mythic and fragile, self-destructive and strong, youthful and timeless. Laura Palmer is a victim, but there’s nothing submissive or resigned about her. She constantly breaks through the ‘victim’ archetype, and Lynch films her with admirable and melancholy reverence without ever simplifying her down to an object through which we funnel our pity. As Fire Walk with Me ended, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. I sat and cried hard full tears for who knows how long. Laura stayed with me for days after. A week later I was driving, and I started thinking about her, and the tears came again. I can’t think of another instance of such residual impact. But I do know that Laura will always be with me, and with countless others.

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I have to pause here for a special mention to the last fifteen minutes of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, a sequence containing three movements as good as the medium has to offer. The climax is an elegy during the fact, tracking a procession of deaths. It approaches the mainstream climax from an atypical point of execution. Familiar content is presented with the flow of an unstoppable avalanche in slow-motion. The score has two themes competing with each other, one measured, the other bursting to get out from underneath. And then everything slows down with Alice (Jodhi May) on the cliff. Shots and moments are held a few seconds longer than they normally would be. Every glance, every gesture carries weight. Alice’s decision hits so much harder due to how peripheral her and Uncas’s (Eric Schweig) romance has been up to this point. The sidelines function of Alice and Uncas provokes a ‘wait-what-is-she-doing’ response we aren’t prepared for. All we can do is sit frozen, breathing in tandem with the score, the bass signifying the act of letting go, and wait for her to carry out her fateful decision.

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3. Husbands and Wives (Allen) (US) (RW)
It’s safe to say the Mia Farrow era of Woody Allen’s career is my era of choice. The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and this account for my top three. It’s the messy end, an ugly piece that spoons bitter truths out of caustic penetrating humor. The faux-documentary construct illuminates the characters (and their motivations) and their inability to reconcile self-analysis with action, specifically within relationships and marriage. How well do people know themselves, and how does that correlate, or not correlate, with an ability to adapt and/or function with another person? There are different levels of self-awareness and all-too human unseemliness in Gabe (Allen), Judy (Farrow), Sally (Judy Davis), and Jack (Sydney Pollack).

Significance comes through flawed characters and ruptured editing techniques. At times we jump from moment to moment, other times we stay on someone’s face far past our comfort level. At the start it’s the neurotic Sally that seems most intolerable. By the end it’s clear she’s got the best head on her shoulders. She sort of learns from her experiences, or at least knows what she needs in a relationship, realizing that for better and worse her and the deplorable Jack (played with odiousness by Sydney Pollack) should be together. It’s not good or bad. It just…is. Nobody gets off the hook including us; every character succumbs to their worst selves at one point or another or several or many. Our varying esteem (it’s a low bar folks) for them is equated with how upfront they are about themselves to themselves. The dichotomy between this brutal form of measurement (Mia Farrow’s Judy oh-so-interestingly comes out on bottom) and the Bergman influenced dissection of the two couples is where Husbands and Wives finds its tense and mordant complexion.

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2. Batman Returns (Burton) (US) (LTF)
I was five when 1992 came along, so my top two are, unsurprisingly, formative works inextricably linked with my childhood; not in mere nostalgia, but deep personal meaning. I like to call Batman Returns a “DNA” film. It’s a phrase I use for formative features (we’ve all got a handful of ’em). They become mythologized, bigger than themselves, immeasurable in impact for the individual.

A knotty, expressionistic, and uncommonly grim superhero film fueled by the Tragic with a Capital T emotional arcs of its villains, this still stands as a risky endeavor. It doesn’t follow a cookie cutter way-to-be. There’s no house style, not a trace of anonymity or comfort. Tim Burton just does whatever the fuck he wants, favoring approach and impression over now-hip grit and the samey-spectacle that came with the advent of CGI. It gleefully eschews fan expectations and even its hero (and hell, even its story) for an imposing and deeply disturbing operatic vision that plays around with the sexual, the psychotic, and the putrefied.

It’s the best Batman film, by far, and my favorite superhero film no contest. Why? Because it isn’t even really a superhero film, and I never view it as such. It’s about the grotesquerie of the Penguin and his search for identity through ‘Oswald’. It’s about Selina Kyle’s reclamation of identity and self through mental collapse and shock. After all this time, Danny DeVito’s Penguin still makes me sick to my stomach with his gallows humor and sullied sweaty sack of a costume, oozing green and going out with a gurgle. But here’s the power of the film; a scene as inherently absurd (one of many) as a group of penguins acting as collective pallbrearers for DeVito’s corpse as they slide him into the sewer water is not only affecting, but genuinely haunting and heavy with tragedy.

And for all its many wonders (Danny Elfman’s ghostly score being at the very top of that list), it all comes down to Michelle Pfeiffier as Catwoman. Some know how much her work here means to me, and they tend to be others (because there are a lot of us)  who’ve been similarly impacted by what she does with this role, which is, well, what doesn’t she do with it? Her Selina grows to own herself at the expense of her sanity. She helps others at the expense of her ‘goodness’. She desperately tries to fill that hole inside her to no avail. The slinky dominatrix garb she makes for herself is a one-off, and by the end the rips and tears are showing the unhinged chaos and suffering underneath. There’s a gravitas to her work that reveals an escalating depth of sorrow. And she gets the last shot of the film; risen, triumphant, and ever-so-slightly nodding at her own perseverance.

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1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson) (US) (LTF)
I’ve been foolishly psyching myself out in regards to writing about The Muppet Christmas Carol because from the start I’ve been treating it as an attempt to convert or convince others of its greatness. Like I have to make up for eye-rolling that may or may not occur from those who will wrongfully dismiss this as a ‘clouded by nostalgia pick’ (though I have more faith in my readers than that). Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.

But I’ve ditched the idea of treating this like a pitch. I’m not going to say much about the film because it’s all there in my heart and in my gut and it’s difficult to extrapolate on the why’s of its effect on me. It’s unbridled joy, and a truly beautiful blend of two iconic properties (The Muppets and Dickens) that services both and compromises neither. Three spirits visit Ebenezer Scrooge, but it’s the spirit of the (then) recently departed Jim Henson that looms largest over the proceedings. A moving air of gratitude blankets all. Not a mournful air, but an appreciative one, a big thank you for your creations and for your preposterous wit and heart. Paul Williams, one of my favorite people ever, graces us with songs that are by turns jolly, chilling, and full of thanks. And all of them memorable; there’s not a dud in the bunch (the cut but narratively essential “When Love is Found” notwithstanding).

Every time I watch it, which used to be many times every Christmas season but has now taken on a one-time-saved-for-last occasion, I look forward to every little bit without fail. Whether it’s fawning over cousin Fred or watching Miss Piggy’s saucy side come out as Mrs. Cratchit when downing a toast like a shot. Or the moment when an annoyed Gonzo and a mischievous Rizzo the Rat (our narrative guides) face each other in silence only for Rizzo to lean forward and lightly kiss Gonzo’s curly nose. Or the power Michael Caine (my ideal Scrooge, this is a performance that, like the rest of the film, is near and dear to me) manages to ingrain in the many reaction/shots of observance he has throughout. His arc is all there in the face. Caine considers this one of his most cherished roles. That the experience meant something to him only makes it resonate even more.

This would rank on a list of my 20 favorite films. I hate to quantify my love for something with amount of tears shed, but emotional response is an easy marker to reference. Every year close to Christmas, Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline shows a print of the film for a sold out crowd of kids and adults alike. Last year was the first time I went, marking the beginning of a new yearly tradition. I steadily cried, no exaggeration, about 75% of the runtime. They weren’t tears of joy or sadness, but tears of meaning; I’m, quite simply, moved by its open heart. And as a gal who doesn’t naturally drift towards heartwarming or uplifting lessons learned, I can say without a doubt, that somehow, someway, this film has grown to mean the world to me.

Review: Under the Skin (2014, Glazer)


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I’m going to say this right now; I know it’s early in the year and I’ve hardly seen anything, but if I see another 2014 I love more than this it’ll be a great year. The covert and beguiling Under the Skin rattled me to my core.

Image-centric storytelling, with roots in experimental cinema, that distances itself from mankind. Birth to death, human as alien, alien as human. Firmly divided into two parts, routine and the failing quest for basic human pleasures, with the key transitional scene being Laura’s (nobody has any names, including Laura, but she’s billed as such so it’s just easier for me to follow suit) (Scarlett Johansson) encounter with a man with neurofibromatosis. Before that, she goes about her business, luring and leading men into an abstract and oily black digestive space. There’s no connection between her and her body, her victims, or feelings. But gradually the loneliness starts to sink in, and with it the isolation that humans may experience. She begins to seek out basic human pleasures like eating, sex, and companionship, inquisitive and nervous like a child. She knows she needs something, but is unsure how to go about it.

When Under the Skin ended, I felt like I’d been scooped out from the inside. It’s one of the saddest and loneliest films I’ve ever seen. Scarlett Johansson is mainly a presence for the first half, removed and captivating. And then in the second half she is heartbreaking; confused, yearning and unfulfilled. The final minutes, in which she is pursued by a man in the musky never-ending forest, is so palpable; you can feel her fear. Predator to prey. The second she desires the human instinct she loses so much agency. She becomes vulnerable and susceptible, her lair further and further away, unable to reconcile that yearning. We sense the irreparable loss of that center, her time dwindling. My boyfriend found something peaceful about the one-with-the-snow ending, but I didn’t. I just can’t; it’s not in my nature.

The formalism contributes to a new withdrawn perspective of ourselves, as something Other and incomprehensible. The thick Scottish accents further that distance, as does Mica Levy’s slinky and exotic high-pitched string score, and the sound design where much is compressed and blanketed over. Take for instance, as an example of said withdrawn perspective, the way Glazer shoots the scene on the beach, in which attempted rescue causes a chain reaction of familial death, a wailing abandoned baby as sole survivor. Laura, and thus we, take all of it in at once and for what it is (death) with unfeeling coldness. The discrepancy between what is happening, and how we see it, is very disturbing. And then Laura murders a man with a rock, and it’s the opposite of how murder is usually depicted in film. There is no close-up, no sound effect, and no clear view because Laura is crouching with her back to us. The impact of the scene is that there is no impact, and that lack of impact in turn translates to its own unique impact for the audience.

The film does not pass judgment on Laura. As she observes us, we observe her, and ourselves through her. Another layer to this is gradually added when Laura begins to observe herself, in a successive set of mirror scenes as she considers her new form. This observation becomes out-of-body in the end. No mirror is needed in her last moments. There’s certainly an angle on femininity, female sexual power, what it means to be a woman, and examining the male gaze, but I can’t parse through what I take from that with one viewing.

Generally, I think more filmmakers and producers need to put their trust in the communicative power of the image (and in viewers), especially since it’s what the medium inherently is to begin with. Under the Skin hypnotically uses impressionistic imagery and Scarlett Johannson’s face as narrative (there is very little dialogue overall) for a final product about existential isolation and irreconcilable cognizance that I still haven’t been able to shake two weeks later.

It’s the Little Things:
– Speaking of the power of the image, I couldn’t help but think of “Hannibal” which is putting more stock in abstract strokes of impressionism in its cinematography, editing, and score than most films I see.
– The section of Levi’s score used during the attempted sex scene is astonishing stuff. Astonishing.
– The final scene in the forest. I don’t even know what to say about it except that I cried but in a way that evoked rare kinds of feeling in me (not in the volume of tears as there weren’t many, but in the profundity and sadness of it).
– The shot where Laura scoots back to the wall in the forest’s rest area hut
– The digestion scene disturbed the hell out of me and made me jump a bit. Ever wonder what a Suck-O-Matic for people would look like?
– So I was well aware of the hidden camera methods of working that make up a lot of Johansson’s van-cruising interactions. And I kind of wish I hadn’t as it’s impossible not to be distracted by it once you know it. The unnatural naturalness of them are given a context I wish I didn’t have.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #47-56


I have no idea how to write about WWII propaganda, even well-made and entertaining pieces. I recently purchased On the Front Lines from Walt Disney’s Treasury Series, which collects a selected group of wartime shorts. During the war, the Disney studio’s output was making almost exclusively WWII-related works from countless training videos for armed forces and entertainment bits for those on the homefront. During these years, the studio itself was even armed and protected like a military base. This period in Disney history is woefully underwritten about. The books written about WWII Hollywood treat it like a footnote, though they were far and away producing more than anyone else, and an indispensable source for armed forces at the time. These shorts I review here fall in the entertainment category. Cartoons take a special kind of blunt reductivism within the propaganda sphere. It’s worth pondering what exactly the government was aiming to sell the American public with these shorts as well as if whether or not it accurately lined up with the general public’s perceptions. Thoughts on these four shorts will be more a collection of observations than summarized thoughts.

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#47. Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943, Kinney) (USA)

  • The life of a Nazi and fascism seen as nightmarish all-work-and-no-play, almost inviting an implied empathy for anyone operating within its warped depiction of Germanic life.
  • Aroma de Bacon & Eggs
  • Literal yellowface. Even by 1940’s standards, the hyper-overt racism is supremely uncomfortable. But it falls in line with Japanese representation during WWII, being far more barbaric and grossly offensive than other Axis powers appaearances.
  • The structure is built heavily around the famous title song which is played out in full.
  • The climax is easily the highlight in which the short goes all Dumbo on us re: Donald’s escalating insanity making way for surreal disembodied color blocked images colliding into a cymbal crashing wake-up call.
  • Brought around to American democratic values at the end, where Donald (a super-patriot based on his room decor!) wakes up and is oh-so-grateful to be an American.

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#48. Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Hitler youth as depicted by Disney, making for a weirdly abstract timeline.
  • Narrator is just-the-facts stern, giving a removed and deliberately unrelatable feel. The use of non-subtitled German language has similar effect.
  • Always acknowledges the master race but never the racial violence/hatred as the logical endpoint to that concept.
  • Adapted from a novel by someone who lived in German for nine years.
  • Awkward bit of apparently mandatory comedy doesn’t work at all.
  • Interestingly, another case of empathy towards those indoctrinated, anger directed at the big guns so to speak, and not the common folk.
  • May be my personal preference of the four watched, as there’s so much to pick over and admire as far as its effectiveness, execution and curio value.

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#49. Reason and Emotion (1943, Roberts) (USA)

  • Tries to take our brain impulses and depict them as corporeal figures in an ongoing battle for dominance. Reason is an upper-crust fuddy-duddy. Emotion is a proto-Flinstones reject.
  • There are few moments in anything more amusing than when the short oh-so-subtly reveals its agenda, going from frivolous high-concept to propaganda. “That’s right emotion. Go ahead! Push reason out of the way. That’s great. That’s fine…for Hitler!”
  • Still, its relative indirectness makes it a welcome change of pace from the previous two.

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#50. Chicken Little (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Perhaps the most effective, or at least the most transferable, when looking at these with a modern eye because it uses the fable as a cautionary WWII allegory. Unfortunately it is overall not very engaging.
  • Chicken Little himself is a particularly snotty little puke, even by this tale’s standards, prime for feeding lies and jump-starting chaos.
  • The end represents how dangerous face value beliefs and fed false truths are, which not only speaks to the nature of propaganda itself (the most resonant thing about the short) but to nurture-based sociopolitical norms.
  • Bleak as fuck end, even by this fable’s standards. Holy hell.

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#51. Fox and His Friends (1975, Fassbinder) (West Germany)
These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important than self-respect. These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important period. Every single Fassbinder film is politically charged (on a broad level, but of course with specificity to West Germany), about the losing battle with societal norms.  For him there is no winning and everything is a compromise. Because if you turn to terrorism or anarchy or simple rejection, you still operate and are defined by those same constructs, just in opposition as opposed to compliance. Money catapults Fox, makes him useable. And Fox is gullible, bordering on willfully I would argue; sucked dry. Fassbinder’s other major career-spanning theme, masochism, specifically in relation to what he would dubiously call ‘love’, is also present. Well, that’s not much of an observation. It’s also in every single film of his. Mirrors are a visual cue as reflection of what is right in front of Fox’s nose.

Augen is truly despicable. I mean he really has to be one of the most distasteful characters I’ve ever come across. I loved Fassbinder as Fox, his eager-to-please naivete.  The rhinestone ‘FOX’ on the back of his denim jacket might as well say ‘SUCKER’. His unassuming character remains unconverted in spirit, but his identity, possessions and agency are corrupted. It’s very easy to spot the film’s downward trajectory because Fox’s ability to be deceived is made very clear both to us and everyone around him from the get-go, making his fate that much harder to watch. The final shot is searing stuff, carnival music bringing us back full circle under wildly bleak circumstances. Everyone has used him, nobody will stay with him even in death. Even the camera is fleeting, having gotten his story, backing away from him like a stranger. Use of “Bird on the Wire” potent and anticipatory, not to mention most welcomed.

– Fox’s telephone joke? ADORABLE.

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#52. Veronica Mars (2014, Thomas) (USA)

Like a full season crammed into about two and a half episodes. This sounds like an insult, so let’s switch ‘crammed’ for ‘distilled’, because I pretty much loved this. After some clunky recapping, we’re right back in Veronica’s head and all is right with the world. It clicks along with just the right amount of ups and downs. Veronica’s just-when-I-thought-I-was-out (OK nine years is not ‘just’) arc is used as a foundation with which to build stakes and revisit and reestablish old patterns and connections to the past. Even the central mystery harkens back to a high school-era crime. The titular character’s ten-year reunion takes place a year before mine would theoretically occur, thus my headspace  heavily related to the do-we-ever-really-change concerns. Most major players are serviced at least in some regard. That the film feels undercooked at intervals, as opposed to undercooked and rushed, is a bit of a feat considering how much ground is covered.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there lacks a big-screen feel to Veronica Mars; this is more made-for-TV movie territory in layout and stature. Most impressive is now largely natural the continuation felt, biting quickness and California-noir all fully intact.

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#53. Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (2014, von Trier) (Denmark, etc)
It’s difficult to have any conclusive thoughts when I’ve only seen half the final product (though I pretty much know most of what happens in Volume 2), but I’ll jot down some thoughts. Von Trier embeds twinkles of playful humor into the deliberately unsexy provocation this time around, and it largely works to his advantage. It’s easy and natural to focus on the cobwebs of by turns messy and provoking gender politics to be found. I still say that von Trier puts more thoughtful care into his female characters, which are Trier surrogates to begin with (which yes, brings us back around to the male but the point remains), than most male directors, regardless of what he puts them through. I’ve always found that suffering to be explicitly linked to himself, making it impossible to toss off as a function of misogyny. A film about a specific self-destructive case of hypersexuality isn’t going to be sex positive, because it’s not really going to be about sex. It’s about the strands of habitual addiction and damaging compulsions that can coincide with it, male or female. This isn’t sex with consequences. This is sex as unquenchable fulfillment within the human condition. Sex as desperate momentary grabs at feeling alive. This isn’t about women. It’s at even broader and far more specific. This is about people. And this is about Joe.

What makes Lars von Trier films so singular is that they increasingly feel like a form of self-therapy; he’s exposed and inextricably linked to his work, not as a filmmaker but as a deeply thoughtful, endlessly wily, and haunted man. Nymphomaniac is about unfillable emptiness. For all the wildly entertaining but misrepresentative marketing, the sex scenes, and the body doubles, the structure emerges as most engaging. The framing device as open-ended dialogue approaches philosophical, but is mainly based around Stellan Skarsgaard’s Seligman and his inability to relate to human experience, bringing his education and esoteric knowledge to the forefront, regularly chiming in the only way he knows how. These cultural reference points even dictate the chapter titles and guide Joe along with his room full of coincidental reminders. Skarsgaard is doing unsung wonders with that role by the way.

Speaking of unsung work, Stacy Martin as younger Joe gives a very subtle and perceptive performance. She remains stoic and removed, because her Joe doesn’t have to answer to anybody. Chapters 3 & 5 stand out. Chapter 4 stops the film dead in its tracks. Partly Christian Slater’s fault, whose tree-loving dad I don’t buy. But it’s mostly von Trier’s fault for indulging in monotonous drudgery for an extended period of time with no impact. Uma Thurman is everything you’ve heard. It’s a tour-de-force from an actress not given many opportunities to show what’s she’s capable of. Shia LaBeouf’s accent is a joke, which is a shame because I’m one of the people who thinks, nay knows, he can act. That accent isn’t strengthening my case though. Overall a solid entry, not ultimately one of my very favorites from the Dane; but as always, lots to chew on. Seeing Volume 2 on Monday night.

ErnestAndCelestine
#53. Ernest and Celestine (2014, Aubier, Patar, Renner)
(France/Belgium)
Sweet-natured beyond reproach, fully enlivening two distinct worlds (that of bears and mice) which are inextricably and antagonistically defined by the other. The lumbering wannabe thespian Ernest and the sprightly artistic Celestine enter a mutually beneficial dynamic which turns into inseparable friendship. From the creators of A Town Called Panic, the former’s chaos is recalled in spurts (the dual Police chase is a favorite) and calming downtime gives E&C room to blossom with us as witness. The animation has gorgeously fluid backgrounds with a watercolor aesthetic applied to still winters, pastoral spring, and two dream sequences that give more freedom to the animators. The characters themselves have a quickness of movement that also recalls ‘Panic’.

Little Women_1949
#54. Little Women (1949, LeRoy)

I’m picky with my Little Women. The 1994 Gilliam Armstrong film is a precious and sacred entity to me, to the point where even the source material itself doesn’t tickle my fancy. But surprisingly, I liked this! Most praiseworthy is its use of Technicolor and all technical contributions to the looks; cinematography, costume, and art direction. So a lot of the mise-en-scène touchstones. It’s one of the most strikingly photographed films I’ve ever seen. There’s an illustrative quality to it, with tones somehow both warm and vibrant, every color fully felt. And the cast mostly meets the criteria. Janet Leigh’s Meg is appropriately just sort of present. Margaret O’Brien makes for a much younger Beth (and edges Claire Danes out of the Weepiest Beth award). Elizabeth Taylor’s distracting blonde wig notwithstanding, gets at the put-upon haughtiness of Amy. And June Allyson, who I don’t normally think of as being an actress I particularly like, makes a wonderful Jo, particularly in her portrayal of Jo’s desire for everything to continue forever unchanged. The men don’t fare well; Laurie is dull as a sack of potatoes and they hilariously cast an Italian actor as Professor Bhaer….while keeping the character German.

Five Graves to Cairo
#55. Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Wilder)

Billy Wilder’s underappreciated second feature film is easy to get undeservedly lost among WWII-era pictures. Adapted from a play originally set during WWI, the isolated action is moved to a hotel in North Africa where espionage, undermining, and deception all run amok by the core cast. Despite its eventual committed seriousness, quite a bit of Five Graves to Cairo is light on its feet, until it isn’t, treating its subject with a winning mix of popcorn fare and brass tacks purposefulness. Fortunio Bonanova’s buffoon of an Italian general pretty succinctly sums up the way Italians were portrayed during wartime; as largely nonthreatening underlings. Erich von Stroheim, one of Wilder’s idols, walks away with the film. His Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is cunning, particular, and direct.

#56. Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)
Short review/rant coming soon

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 Round-Up #1-5


Hello all! Welcome to the new year! I’m closing in on my 2013 viewings. There are 5 more available must-sees for me to watch and then I’ll embark on 2013 lists. This year for my round-ups, I’d preferably like to do them in groups of 5. It’ll make for more posts and easier promotion, and more consistency.  I’ll also be keeping monthly track of countries and decades represented at the bottom of certain postsc.

Planet of the Vampires

#1. Planet of the Vampires (1965, Bava) (Spain/Italy)
Slightly ahead of its time with its notion of sci-fi/horror, a genre blend that wasn’t often mixed by 1965. And this isn’t just sci-fi/horror like, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it’s horror in space. Mario Bava does his thing by using the physical space, cavernous ultra-low budget sets, pop color smog, and an eerie electronic score to create an inescapable atmosphere. But here’s the rub; the entire film feels like a total flatline. There’s an inexcusable monotony that takes hold instead of the intended dread. I can’t say I felt one thing during the film. It’s known these days as an uncanny precursor to Alien. Bava often discards characters and story in favor of aesthetics, and he’s praised for this today, but I’m leaning towards not really being a fan of his. Of the four Bava films I’ve seen, only Kill, Baby…Kill! is the only one I’m outright fond of. His brand of atmosphere tends to run transparent and empty for me personally.

Loves of a Blonde 1

2. Loves of a Blonde (1965, Forman) (Czechoslovakia)
Coming-of-age triptych built on a naive clutch for escapism via romance. There is a constant back-and-forth between characters who criss-cross within comic setpieces,  trekking through social and domestic debacles with a wry tracking observation. The first sequence in particular has the camera functioning almost as a sports announcer, catching increasingly lumbering developments from all sides.

Andula’s initial reluctance towards Milda reveals a self-awareness that once distrust turns to trust, she’s all-in. He of course is a cad of the first order, inverting a self-defense lesson to advance upon her as well as a faux-interest in her attempted suicide. The way his methods of persistence casually reveal this fact about Andula reveal an underlying sadness to the film. What impressed me most about it was how Forman’s second work has a quick-witted touch, laced w/ Czech pop music and a kind of farcical comedy-of-errors, but there’s a sincere sadness underneath it all that may or may not be reconcilable.

Bunny Lake is Missing

#3. Bunny Lake is Missing (1965, Preminger) (UK)
Second 1965 film seen based on an Evelyn Piper novel. Could be read from a feminist perspective as it uses the ‘but they do exist!’ film to prey upon our assumptions of women as hysterical and mentally unstable creatures with maternal fixations only to slam it back in our face. There’s also quite a bit of onscreen manipulation to make this possible, most notably if our first shot of Ann had started five seconds earlier.

Once the reveal takes place, we set upon a conventional kind of climax, but it also sets the film free from information withholding (for better or worse), becoming manic with perverse incestuous and infantile elements, and a gloves-come-off formalism by Preminger to match. It’s both conventional and delirious, like watching an extended improv exercise with impossibly high stakes.

The more grounded first two-thirds are won over by the supporting cast of British eccentrics reveling in grotesquerie. There’s Noel Coward as a gay masochist who speaks in drolly slimy propositions. And there’s Martita Hunt as Ada Ford, a retired shut-in who lives in an attic listening to tape recordings of children describing their nightmares. Anna Massey is her upright golden self. Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea give performances that don’t quite fit in with their surroundings but it works, separating them from the rest just as they are in the story. The two groups of performances fall into coarse vs. whimsical. Not sure where Olivier fits in. We’ll put him in the category of ‘Olivier’! There; problem solved.

How about that creepy doll hospital, huh? There’s also a deeply misplaced tie-in with The Zombies (whom I love dearly), foreshadowing future par-for-the-course industry tie-ins of all kinds. The first time appear, on a pub TV, it’s painfully awkward. The second time, played over Ann’s escape from hospital, works really well and predicts the way music will be used in film very shortly afterwards. Preminger uses his busy lingering frames to feel like a maze of the mind, but whose mind, and how do we find out?

spectacular now

#4. The Spectacular Now (2013, Ponsoldt) (USA) 
Indie darling coming-of-age romance based on a YA novel? Doesn’t sound like my cuppa. Oh, but in this case it was. Brings us into the characters lives on their own level of experiencing first loves and mistakes and conflicting flutters and people letting them down. This ushers in a level of investment on our part  uncommon in most romances; we come to care deeply for Sutter and Aimee, separately and, for better or worse, together. Ponsoldt makes us feel like part of the story; we feel as they feel. The uncertainty, the butterflies, the ways people change and don’t change and the self-doubt.

I cannot stress enough how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are; it’s to the point of hyperbolic-free ‘revelatory’. Ponsoldt keeps long takes with the two actors, both in frame, so we can see how they share physical space and their physicality with each other. Their scenes feel unrehearsed, clumsy, vulnerable. We catch how substantial and new the blossoming relationship is for her, how casual and freewwheeling for him, and the ensuing changes on each end. We know Sutter. He’s a class clown type, clinging to high school because he sees no forward-motion for himself. He’s always deflecting. Woodley is just as impressive, if not more so, because the film doesn’t favor her perspective and yet she’s able to elevate a ‘nice girl’ role into something so beautiful and fragile. We become so excited for her, and then protective of her.

The Spectacular Now is so good that it manages to come out on top despite falling into a few conventional coming-of-age trappings. The ‘I’m just like my father’ subplot lacks oomph or subtlety. So that unfortunate side-trip takes up a lot of been-there-done-that time. There’s also a framing device that immediately undercuts and underestimates everything between.

I’m über-picky with romance. But I was struck by the maturity with which this story and these characters, even the secondary ones, are crafted. People are neither wholly good or bad, everyone is flawed and capable of weakness, ill-advised coping and the hardships of living with oneself. It’s an obvious truth, and one that films tend to forget in service of tropes. I guess what I’m saying is that The Spectacular Now doesn’t view its characters as characters, it views them as people. And I responded very positively to that.

It also gets the fumbly awkwardness of courtship, particularly the mismatched intentions of them (playing half-hearted and whole-hearted investment off each other) and new-to-them experiences like sex. And I’m not talking movie-awkward, I’m talking awkward-awkward. But a normal kind of awkward. A kind we all relate to and recognize. It’s a quality you can’t miss. It’s due to the performers and that James Ponsoldt is so committed to telling this story with honesty and sincerity.

A final thought was that a new kind of feeling to have towards a coming-of-age romance was conflicted feelings about how I wanted it to end. It’s not cut-and-dry and I found myself wondering ‘what do I want for these two?’ Aimee may be good for Sutter but Sutter really isn’t good for Aimee, and her undying loyalty to him shuts out her own potential. You see it happening; it’s frighteningly casual. When and how the film comments on this is a stand-out. Have I mentioned how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are? Because it bares mentioning again.

Also, I think The Spectacular Now would make a fitting double feature with The World’s End.

thepast-berenicebejo

#5. The Past (2013, Farhadi) (France)
Companion piece to A Separation in that it takes a multi-player domestic crisis right up to the point of melodrama, flirts with it, but stays on the side of caution, using its energy and resources to comb through the minefield of clashing perspectives and human emotion. Farhadi’s strength, and the film’s, is his lack of judgment; he acts as a resolute and humanistic seeker of truth and escalating bursts of hardship along the path to dust-settling. I know some reacted negatively to the plot overload, but the film plays with melodrama, and that’s what melodrama is rooted in; heightened plot developments that seem not to cease and which threaten familial or romantic implosion. Maybe it’s because Farhadi feels more naturalistic and observed in formal ways and so the melodrama sticks out as somehow being below him or crass amongst the rest. Me, I like the marriage he finds between the two. It’s hard to call it over-plotted when all of the developments go back to an event that has already taken place; developments simply equal secrets being revealed and confessions being made, in this case like a Matryoshka doll.

What I did take slight  issue with was that there seems to have been a shrill women vs. calm and exhausted men dichotomy set up that felt iffy. Bèrènice Bejo, as great as she is, isn’t afforded quite the same level of understanding as the other characters, most emphatically when placed against Ahmad, who may as well bear the title of Shitstorm Cleaner, the character we most immediately empathize with. I also felt the resolution, or lack thereof, to be limp. Between this and A Separation, Asghar Farhadi is becoming a favorite of mine. I’d really love to see About Elly.

Viewings and Rewatches: February 3rd-9th, 2013


New-to-Me Viewings:

Endless Night

#19. Endless Night (1972, Gilliat): C

Largely sluggish but with a great twist at the end, and some nice touches on the dialogue. Also a whackadoo 70’s house and George Sanders in one of his last roles (he committed suicide before the film’s release). Memorable Bernard Herrmann score. I wish Britt Ekland’s character and purpose had felt formed instead of wobbly. It did actually leave me wanting to read Agatha Christie’s novel and to see the other two Mills/Bennett collaborations.

Code Unknown

#20. Code Unknown (2000, Haneke): A-
Speaks about racial tension, communication, avoidance and how we deal with violence in ways that circumvent the cliches of the hyperlink film by maintaining an elusive quality. Each segment, almost always in one take either stagnant or tracking, could stand on its own and is in some ways meant to based on the cut to black that separates them. But bring them all together to consider them as a whole, and Haneke gives you a lot to think about and mull over.

peggysue-reunion

#21. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986, Coppola): B-
Individual Write-up:
https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/review-peggy-sue-got-married-1986-coppola/

Rewatches:

Maltese Falcon

#4. The Maltese Falcon (1941, Huston)
First Seen in: 2005

I’m picky with my film noir. Sure, I like a lot of them but love comparatively few. This is definitely one of my favorites. With Sam Spade at its center, corrupt characters move in and out of his way at breakneck speed with snappy repartee abound. It says something that Spade, who cannot at any cost be bested, giving nobody the benefit of the doubt, still manages to lose the upper hand several times along the way. He has a total absence of grief over partner’s death. No angel himself, he is surrounded by amorality, but oh what forms they come in. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet; iconic characters. Lorre with his phallic cane and gardenia smelling cards and Greenstreet, a hulking mass in front of Huston’s low-angle shots, his form engulfing the frame. No noir tropes yet formed for the screen  allows for Mary Astor’s atypical femme fatale casting which works though her deception is nowhere near as colorfully mounted as her male counterparts. Love Spade and his secretary Effie. Legitimately exciting when all major players converge at the end though it says something that Astor has like zero dialogue during this scene. Love the shadow of the bars almost making a falcon stamp across Astor’s face as the elevator gate shuts. I’m not sure I buy Spade’s confession at the end. I always forget that this was John Huston’s first film. Insanity.

Notorious

#5. Notorious (1946, Hitchcock)
First Seen in: my guess would be 2003

When I first saw this as a teenager I was underwhelmed. Suffice it to say I was an idiot. Hitchcock’s most romantic film with his most nuanced romantic pairing at its center. This is really about a layered love triangle under the guise of a spy thriller and the Macguffin of a wine bottle full of uranium. There’s a simple narrative throughline which everything is built off of and it shifts from section to section with ease. Grant’s Devlin is cold, afraid of his own feelings (and of women, but he’ll get over it) favoring an easier unresponsive state. Bergman’s Alicia is trapped by her father’s past and her own past, always being watched, she is both looked down upon as ‘that sort of woman’ yet is needed for being exactly that. Bring the two together and we see the evolution of a romance provoked by Grant’s passivity and Bergman’s actions in reaction to his passivity.

And those are only the basics of what these two have between each other. Bring in Claude Rains as Alex, a sympathetic villain who wears his foolish heart on his sleeve, the opposite of Devlin, and there’s a riveting triangle at play. The luminous close-up is front and center. The drinking motif, the act of watching and being watched, of playacting, etc. I love Bergman’s Alicia; my favorite performance from her I believe. I had gotten so used to seeing her as Ilsa, a character I’ve always found pretty uninteresting. There is a sophistication here in Hitchcock’s work that feels like a man working at his peak. Everything came together on this one. It’s precise and mature. Truffaut said to him “of all your pictures, this is the one in which one feels the most perfect correlation between what you are aiming at and what appears on the screen”. He’s right, and Hitchcock, who is constantly self-critical in their interviews, doesn’t have a bad thing to say about it.

Rope

#6. Rope (1948, Hitchcock)
Seen twice, both times between 5-10 years ago.

Hitchcock is a virtuoso at editing, using it to create, build and sustain suspense like no other. So by taking editing out in its entirety, you have a most interesting self-imposed challenge. Camera movement thus takes on double the importance it normally has, substituting his usual shot distance:importance ratio. He still gets to maintain that ratio; he just has to go about getting there more inventively. I think the experiment or gimmick of Rope mainly works, but it can’t help but feel like a trick being played for the sake of it. I don’t feel Hitch’s connection or devotion to the story, but more his preoccupation in wowing everyone with the technical achievement that it most certainly is. Arthur Laurents does a lot with his script, trying to do what he can, but he’s stuck with a very one-note central dynamic. Dall and Granger give broad performances that don’t quite work for me.

The mounting suspense is thrilling, especially with the way Brandon keeps pushing the situation, daring others to suspect and generally overplaying his hand. It’s the central party that has me glued to the screen. Loving Joan Chandler’s dress in this by the way. Everyone has their part to play and I love the loaded double meaning dialogue. The camera is like a guest itself, wandering around, snooping in on conflicts, discussions, heated conversations, etc. I lose track of time during this second act, that’s how caught up in it I am. Jimmy Stewart’s face (a miscasting that works only because Stewart is always great) as he slowly begins to suspect. His observational moments are a highlight as is his interrogation of Philip as he plays Mouvement Perpétuel No. 1 more and more nervously. The scene where the camera lingers on the chest as Mrs. Wilson disrobes the coffin of its dining room status. The alternating between the green and red lights at the end has a claustrophobic, walls-closing-in effect. And that silent final image is exactly like the end of a stage play; you can practically feel the curtain go down. Definitely some issues that keep this from top-tier status, but still fabulous.

Marathon Man

#7. Marathon Man (1976, Schlesinger)
First Seen in: 2008

Marathon Man has me in its grip from start to finish. Uses the audience’s lack of information in the first half as a constant source of paranoia, using that old rule that prolonging the knowledge of what’s important by nature makes everything important. The first half features some careful character and mood based table setting. I love how it’s just a bunch of disparate elements floating about, slowly being brought together by the plot. Uses running and the accompanying endurance of pain to connect Babe’s journey, from legs to teeth. It also fuses the past via the Holocaust’s infinite trauma and its imprint on New York City and couples it with various crises, tensions and crime rates in the then-present climate. The scene where Szell is recognized on the street surpasses its superficial purpose of creating tension and feels disturbingly weighty. The second film to use the Steadicam for all of the running scenes. And speaking of Olivier, his monstrous Szell reminds me of Geri the Cleaner from Toy Story 2. Am I right or am I right? The plot feels a little flimsy by the end (The Division feels far too abstract), which is mostly overcome by not having plot be its main concern in the first place. Creepy high frequency score by Michael Small as well as alternately gritty and grand photography by the great Conrad Hall.

Rosemary's Baby

#8. Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Polanski)
First Seen in: 2003 or 2004

Individual write-up:
https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/reintroduction-2-rosemarys-baby-1968-polanski/

The Asphalt Jungle

#9. The Asphalt Jungle (1950, Huston)
First Seen in: 2005

When I rewatched The Maltese Falcon, I mentioned I’m picky with my noirs. Well here we have another one, more specifically another one directed by John Huston, that I consider among my favorites of the genre. It’s a crossbreed between an A & B picture. Rising above the pack primarily because it knows that the broad motivation of money is not enough to sustain interest or longevity. This is character-based, spending all of its time first, individualizing all participants motivation, weaknesses and general character. Secondly, it examines the individuals within the collective through themes of loyalty, teamwork and male bonding. I’ve watched this twice tonight, the second time with commentary and what struck me the second time was how successful the dialogue is at subtle foreshadowing and repetition. Sam Jaffe always intrigues me like few other actors employed in the Hollywood studio system. And Louis Calhern is stupendous, sympathetic in spite of his deeds. And Gus! So good. Sterling Hayden has always eluded me. I can’t dig into that one-note of musky ruggedness and it has always hindered me from feeling much towards him. His character’s loyalty to Jaffe won me over though.

Poor Jean Hagen. It’s pretty clear that Hayden doesn’t feel much one way or the other but she is needy like a wounded puppy. In Huston’s world there is little room for women. They exist on the outskirts; resigned, clinging, invalid or in the case of Marilyn Monroe a wide-eyed sex kitten who likes scandalous green bathing suits and trips to Cuba. Favorite scenes include Jaffe in the diner, Calhern and his wife playing cards, Calhern’s final moments, Jean Hagen and her malfunctioning fluttering eyelash and that magnificently ironic and tragic end. Dense, multiplaned low-key ‘noir’ photography gives plenty to take in. Who can forget the quote “After all, crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor”

2013 Book Challenge:
#7. The Little Friend – Donna Tartt: 9/10

List: Top 30 Fall Films to See (September-December)


We are two weeks into the Fall Movie Season; that lovely time of year when theaters are crowded with anticipated releases big and small. I have to admit that there are not a ton of films I’m dying to see these last several months of the year. My Top 30 is a strong group indeed, but this is the first year in a long time where I didn’t have about 45 films clamming for a spot on the Top 30. To put it simply, several of the bigger fall releases I’m feeling ambivalent towards. These include Flight, Promised Land, The Impossible, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Hyde Park on Hudson and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I’m really looking forward to On the Road, Therese Raquin, Skyfall, Frankenweenie, Detropia, This is 40 and The Sessions but not enough to earn them a spot on the list.

If all of those highly anticipated films do not appear on this list, the question begs; what does? These are the 30 films I am most looking forward to. What are yours?

30. Barbara (Germany)
Synopsis: A doctor working in 1980s East Germany finds herself banished to a small country hospital.

Germany’s official submission for this year’s Oscars. I have yet to see a film directed by Christian Petzhold although I always meant to see Jerichow. I’m always going to be a sucker for films set in East Germany.

29. Lincoln
Synopsis:
As the Civil War nears its end, President Abraham Lincoln clashes with members of his cabinet over the issue of abolishing slavery.

The recently released trailer for Lincoln felt admittedly stuffy and anticlimactic. But I have faith in this film, despite the actors playing historical dress-up vibe and not caring about Spielberg’s 2011 one-two punch of War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. But look at this cast! Look at it! Daniel Day-Lewis appears in one film every few years, so any opportunity to see him on screen must be seized immediately. Especially since his last film role was the start-to-finish miscalculation known as Nine.

28. Dredd 3D
Synopsis:
In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, a cop teams with a trainee to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

Out of nowhere, Dredd 3D is getting really solid notices. Like, ridiculously solid review. In a world where the film industry deals in remakes and comic book adaptations as a daily ritual, I don’t think anyone had this on their radar. For the countless middling forgettable release and anticipatory disappointments, there aren’t as many ‘where did this come from’ surprises. Alex Garland wrote the screenplay, whose credits include Never Let Me Go, Sunshine and 28 Days Later. Color me intrigued. But if the notices are to be believed, this is more than worth checking out.

Bonus: Olivia Thirlby sporting blonde hair while kicking ass and taking names.

27. Sister (France)
Synopsis: A drama set at a Swiss ski resort and centered on a boy who supports his sister by stealing from wealthy guests.

This sibling drama doesn’t seem to fit too comfortably into any easy box (outside of the aforementioned ‘sibling drama’) which is what draws me to it.  Lea Seydoux continues to stamp her presence as a French arthouse bombshell with her second release of the year after Farewell, My Queen.

26. Smashed
Synopsis: A married couple whose bond is built on a mutual love of alcohol gets their relationship put to the test when the wife decides to get sober.

I have had my eye on Mary Elizabeth Winstead for a while now. Forget Scott Pilgrim. We’re talking the days of Final Destination 3, Death Proof and Black Christmas. Yes that’s right; Black Christmas. Last year she got a starring role in the remake of The Thing, walking away with all of her dignity in a film as forgettable and rote as they come. I think what most people are excited about in regards to Smashed, is Winstead finally gets a chance to show us what she’s got. And by all accounts, it was worth the wait.

Bonus: Aaron Paul, people. Aaron Paul. Aaron Paul: that is all.

25. How to Survive a Plague
Synopsis: The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

This documentary has the subject matter and the kind of upcoming exposure to really get some attention. It looks like the type of inspiring impassioned history lesson that I look for in this type of doc.

24. Killing Them Softly
Synopsis: Jackie Cogan is a professional enforcer who investigates a heist that went down during a mob-protected poker game.

I have to admit that the trailer for this left me really underwhelmed and relatively uninterested in the story. However, the pairing of director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt has me salivating for this. Considering that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is in my top 10 of the 2000’s, you best believe this earned a spot.

23. Argo
Synopsis: As the Iranian revolution reaches a boiling point, a CIA ‘exfiltration’ specialist concocts a risky plan to free six Americans who have found shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador.

Ben Affleck’s first two films managed to impress me enough without bowling me over. But it’s clear the man’s got a sure and efficient directorial hand. The cast, the based on a true story concept and 70’s period detail are all promising, not to mention its warm reception on the festival circuit.

22. Zero Dark Thirty
Synopsis: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osams Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy SEAL Team 6 in May, 2011.

Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, chronicling the hunt and kill of Osama Bin Laden. I can’t wait to see how the film depicts its subject matter and how functionally rooted in factual reconstruction it is.

21. The Other Dream Team
Synopsis: The incredible story of the 1992 Lithuanian basketball team, whose athletes struggled under Soviet rule, became symbols of Lithuania’s independence movement, and – with help from the Grateful Dead – triumphed at the Barcelona Olympics.

Been hearing a lot about this documentary (one of only 3 on this list since the majority of documentaries come out during the Spring and Summer months). This is a truly fascinating subject, ripe for potential exploration, and it looks genuinely educational and uplifting to boot.

20. Sleep Tight (Spain)
Synopsis: An embittered concierge at a Barcelona apartment building plots to make one happy-go-lucky resident completely miserable in this psychological thriller from [REC] and [REC 2] co-screenwriter/co-director Jaume Balaguero.

I feel pretty confident that this is going to be a reliable, solid slice of horror. It looks like the kind of low-key, suspense ratcheting creepfest that focuses on its antagonist over other characters. And Spanish directors certainly know how to deliver the scares: The Orphanage, The Devil’s Backbone, REC, The Others and last year’s The Last Circus to name a few obvious examples.

19. V/H/S (seen)
Synopsis: When a group of misfits is hired by an unknown third party to burglarize a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they discover more found footage than they bargained for.

I’ve already seen this one but this is where it would have been placed. Horror anthologies are always worth a watch and these directors take the stylistic experimentation that videotapes inherently offer, with its glitchy worn-down visuals and static white noise, and channel it through the possibilities of the genre. That alone makes this worth watching. For all the mediocrity of the stories themselves and the fevered gender-based discussion it has incited, V/H/S has a DIY aesthetic that makes its mark.

18. Keep the Lights On
Synopsis: In Manhattan, filmmaker Erik bonds with closeted lawyer Paul after a fling. As their relationship becomes one fueled by highs, lows, and dysfunctional patterns, Erik struggles to negotiate his own boundaries while being true to himself.

This looks emotional and moving with strong lead performances. It has been impressing audiences since Sundance.

17. Bachelorette (seen)
Synopsis: Three friends are asked to be bridesmaids at a wedding of a woman they used to ridicule back in high school.

Another film on the list I have already seen, this is where Leslye Headland’s self-adapted mean streak of a comedy would have been placed.

16. Sinister
Synopsis: Found footage helps a true-crime novelist realize how and why a family was murdered in his new home, though his discoveries put his entire family in the path of a supernatural entity.

Since premiering at SXSW in March, I have heard nothing but good things about this one. Good horror films that get wide releases are far and few between, but this looks like it will garner Insidious levels of attention with the buzz I’ve been hearing.

15. Silver Linings Playbook
Synopsis: After a stint in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own.

Winning the Audience Award at Toronto today is a huge signifier as to how this film will be received. The trailer didn’t do much to impress, looking too by-the-book with empty quirk thrown in. But all signs point to David O. Russell having a huge hit on his hands post-The Fighter. Russell is one of my favorite directors working today so I cannot wait to see him working in the comedic realm again.

14. Girl Model
Synopsis: A documentary on the modeling industry’s ‘supply chain’ between Siberia, Japan, and the U.S., told through the experiences of the scouts, agencies, and a 13-year-old model.

The second of two documentaries on this list, Girl Model looks like a chilling and illuminating look at the international modeling industry.

13. Seven Psychopaths
Synopsis:
A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to In Bruges reunites him with Colin Farrell as well as Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, both of whom starred in his play “A Beheading in Spokane”. McDonagh a master of the kind of dialogue that knows it’s clever, a Snatch-like trait that I usually veer towards not liking. Somehow he pulls this style off with aplomb and if it’s anywhere near as good as In Bruges, we are in for a treat. Oh, and Tom Waits people. Tom. Waits.

12. Wreck-It-Ralph
Summary: A video game villain wants to be a hero and sets out to fulfill his dream, but his quest brings havoc to the whole arcade where he lives.

This is the only children’s film I really can’t wait to see this Fall. The trailer had me full-on cracking up in a way no trailer has in ages and it has got a golden goose of a high concept. Add in the voice work of John C. Reilly at the helm and the smorgasbord of video game references and this looks like a guaranteed winner.

11. Looper
Synopsis: In 2072, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to ‘close the loop’ by transporting back Joe’s future self.

A brainy sci-fi headed by Rian Johnson? The amount of hype going into this one is considerable, but it looks like it will live up to expectations. I’m a huge fan of Brick and Johnson has directed two of the best “Breaking Bad” episodes in existence (“Fly” and “Fifty-One” respectively). So to see him get the opportunity to headline a considerably mounted genre film with its own world and rules is sure to impress. It is already well on its way to its own spot in the pantheon of great sci-fi flicks.

10. Wuthering Heights (Seen)
Synopsis: A poor boy of unknown origins is rescued from poverty and taken in by the Earnshaw family where he develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister, Cathy. Based on the classic novel by Emily Bronte.

I got the opportunity to see this at the Independent Film Festival of Boston and this is where Andrea Arnold’s adaptation would have been placed had I not seen it. It would have been one of my favorite 2012 films had the last hour not been entirely unbearable. Here is my review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/review-wuthering-heights-2012-arnold-iffboston-2012/

9. Django Unchained
Synopsis: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

I realize that it looks like Quentin Tarantino’s latest gets a pretty low spot. Surely this is Top 5 material, right? Well, while I’m sure this is going to be fantastic, I’m also feeling ready for the director to do something else besides revenge across different genres. But this promises memorable characters, references galore and the type of crackling two-person dialogue scenes we love from him. I think I’m most interested to see how Leonardo DiCaprio fares in one of the auteur’s films and as a villain at that. It’s a much-needed and refreshing step out of his comfort zone.

8. Perks of Being a Wallflower
Synopsis: An introvert freshman is taken under the wings of two seniors who welcome him to the real world.

I’ve had high hopes, really high hopes for this, for a long long time. A lot of us have been waiting forever to see if Stephen Chbosky seminal coming-of-age novel was ever going to be adapted, and lo and behold, the day is almost upon us. It has a remarkable trio of actors in the lead roles. I am particularly amped for Ezra Miller, who quickly climbed his way onto my list of favorite young actors. There hasn’t been a memorable high school flick in a while. And this soundtrack, which takes from the book, is to die for. To. Die. For. The fact that Galaxie 500’s “Tugboat” is going to be in this film is a fact that single-handedly earns ‘Perks’ a spot on the list.

7. A Royal Affair (Denmark)
Synopsis: A young queen, who is married to an insane king, falls secretly in love with her physician – and together they start a revolution that changes a nation forever.

This is shaping up to be a great year for Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. He won Best Actor at Cannes for The Hunt (which will hopefully get a Spring release for 2013), he is set to star in a TV series as Hannibal Lecter and he received excellent notices in the very well-received historical drama A Royal Affair. This looks like an intriguing much better-than-average historical drama that is right up my alley. It also stars Alicia Vikander, a young actress to watch out for who also will appear in Anna Karenina.

6. Rust and Bone (France)
Synopsis: Put in charge of his young son, Ali leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Ali’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stephanie suffers a horrible accident.

This being the latest from Jacques Audiard (A Prophet and Read My Lips) with a reportedly stellar lead performance by Marion Cotillard gives this a very high anticipatory spot. Cotillard has been relegated to pretty thankless roles since catapulting to the Hollywood A-List. It’ll be nice to see her in a meaty lead once again.

5. Holy Motors (France)
Synopsis: From dawn to dusk, a few hours in the life of Monsieur Oscar, a shadowy character who journeys from one life to the next. He is, in turn, captain of industry, assassin, beggar, monster, family man…

All I heard during this year’s Cannes coverage was Holy Motors, Holy Motors, Holy Motors (well, that and a certain other film to appear on this list shortly). By all accounts, this is a surreal whackadoo head trip in the best way possible. It seems well on its way to earning a cult status and I intend on checking it out the moment it comes near me.

4. Cloud Atlas
Synopsis: An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

What will likely be the most divisive film to come out this season, I for one am counting down the days until this film gets released. The 6-minute trailer is a thing of beauty, bringing tears to my hypersensitive eyes. We can attribute a lot of this to the inspired use of M83’s brilliant “Outro”.  And I am over halfway through David Mitchell’s novel as we speak.

The way I see it, whether the film turns out to be a disaster or a triumph (or both at the same time), these filmmakers are going for it. The Wackowski’s and Tom Tykwer have together tackled what is widely thought to be an unadaptable novel (more so than most novels given the unadaptable label). It’s weaving six stories in one film, all in different time periods, with the same actors with the tired old theme of interconnectedness. No matter what the outcome, the film will be discussed for years to come. Without having seen it and going on gut instinct, it feels like the type of film that will possibly be reassessed for the positive as decades pass. As you can see, I’m preparing myself for the bashing to come. I can already see that Cloud Atlas is going to bring out the worst in the blogosphere, Prometheus-style. But no matter what the outcome, this is going to be an ambitious, epic and challenging work that nobody can fully write off. It may end up becoming a flop, but it sure as hell will go down swinging.

Ridiculous Bonus: Bae Doona, one of my very favorite actresses working today is going to get some serious international exposure here as Sonmi-451.

3. Amour (Austria)
Synopsis: Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family. One day, Anne has an attack. The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.

New Micheal Haneke. That not enough for you? It won the Palme D’Or. That still not enough for you? Haneke regular, and my favorite actress, Isabelle Huppert appears. Want more? This is Haneke doing a tearjerker about the elderly with two lead performances that supposedly devastate. My common sense tells me that Amour is going to stomp out my soul. Part of me has been mentally preparing myself for this film since this year’s Cannes.

2. Anna Karenina
Synopsis: Set in late-19th-century Russia high-society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.

Another film that is sure to divide. Joe Wright’s decision to set the Tolstoy adaptation on a stage and to use theatrical stylization is sure to distract some. But frankly, if all we are left with are the visuals evident in the trailer, this will still likely land a spot on my favorites for the year. The costumes, production design and overall look of the trailer is sickening. Joe Wright is one of my favorite directors working today. He pushes himself into challenging and creative directions that breathe new life into familiar tales. Wright reteaming with Keira Knightley, surely one of modern cinema’s most rewarding director/star collaborations, is always thrilling. The way his camera illuminates this woman (who is already stunning to begin with) is beyond my ability to comprehend. We’ve got a screenplay by the great Tom Stoppard, cinematography by the great Seamus McGarvey, music by the great Dario Marianelli and costume design by the great Jacqueline Durran. So basically what it comes down to is that lots of great people are involved in this. I plan on reading this monster of a novel before the film comes out. Now that’s anticipation for you.

1. The Master
Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

I honestly feel like I don’t even need to put reasons here. It’s at the top of everyone’s list. Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite working director. It’s been 5 years since his last film. This was very close to not getting financed. It’s a near miracle we even get to see this. His films engage me more than any other director. They make me feel things that are unrepeatable, unfamiliar and challenging. His films are dense, complex, elusive, pretentious and indefinably uncomfortable.  I live for his films. And on Friday I will finally be seeing his latest in 70mm. Oh, and welcome back to Joaquin Phoenix. It’s been too long. And if the trailers are any indication, this performance is one for the books.