Movies - Lists postsSunday February 10, 2013
My Top 10 Movies of 2012
How do you judge the value of a film? Is it while watching it? Immediately after? During the talking and writing? In how much it stays with you? In whether you want to see it again next week? Next year? In five years? Does it say anything worth saying about what it means to exist? Does it at least entertain in a way that doesn't feel diminishing? Does it entertain without sapping our strength?
In ranking the best movies of the year, I try for some combination of all of these.
I still say 2012 was a weak year for movies. I had my favorites early on in 2009, 2010 and 2011: “L'heure d'ete,” “Up,” “Un Prophete,” “Restrepo,” “The Tree of Life,” “Des hommes et des dieux.” I had no favorites early this year. SIFF let me down. The distributors of good French films let me down. It took them so long to get “Rust and Bone” to me. I needed it last summer when stuck in the stench between superhero July and weak-tea August. September and October had its upswings but November and December were mostly cold and harsh. In the American hinterlands, such as Seattle, we wait for January and February for the best movies to finally arrive. And sometimes they're not the best movies.
Here's my list for the best movies of 2012. When I finally put it together, right now, I thought, “You know, it's not that bad a list.”
In the 1970s in South Africa, so the story goes, there were three albums in every white, liberal (read: anti-Apartheid) home: “Abbey Road” by the Beatles; “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel; and “Cold Fact” by Rodriguez. Everyone listened to Rodriguez. “He was the soundtrack to our lives,” says record-shop owner Steve Segerman. It just took awhile for the South Africans to realize, isolated as they were by Apartheid, that while everyone in the world knew about the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, nobody anywhere knew anything about Rodriguez.
So who was he? Where was he from? Was he still alive? How did his music get to South Africa? Documentarian Malik Bendjelloul blows it, in part, by not beginning with the mystery in South Africa but with Rodriguez himself in the 1970s in Detroit, where he lived and recorded. And died? But the story itself makes up for this miscue.
Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is the type of movie Hollywood never makes any more: a thriller for adults, steeped in history and humor. The tension at the end is so heightened I almost got a headache. But it’s what they do at the beginning that is particularly noteworthy.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio have the audacity to show us, in storyboard fashion, a short history of Iran and its shahs, and of the election in 1950 of Mohammad Mosaddegh, an author and lawyer, who nationalized British and U.S. petroleum in his country, and who was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by MI6 and the CIA three years later. His replacement was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom we all knew as the Shah of Iran, whose lifestyle was profligate, whose police force was ruthless, and who attempted to westernize his country, angering Islamic clerics. This helped lead to his own coup d’etat in 1979, which brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini. Later that year, Iranian students overwhelmed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Thus began the age we live in.
8. The Avengers
This is the superhero movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s imbued with the same spirit that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought to comic books in the early 1960s. Comics under Stan and Jack grew like Bruce Banner under gamma radiation. They grew not only in sales but stature. They grew up. There was a new seriousness—superheroes had problems, superhero teams fought each other like family members—but there was also that pizzazz, that lack of seriousness, that insouciance. Jack’s drawings brought the gravitas and Stan’s personality the lighter-than-air pizzazz. Whedon’s “The Avengers” has that same spirit. It’s fast and fun and contains laugh-out-loud moments. It’s epic and smart and never gets bogged down. At one point I looked at my watch and nearly two hours had passed. Foosh.
How about the scene where all the aliens go after the Hulk? Twenty on one. How about that long, epic, tracking shot that shows us each Avenger in the midst of battle, like some two-page, single-panel extravaganza from Jack Kirby or John Romita or John Byrne? Christopher Nolan in his Batman movies uses quick cuts like he’s directing an MTV video for our distracted age. Whedon seems to be asking himself: How much epic battle can I contain in one tracking shot? He’s the Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors.
Most teachers in these types of movies are human but heroic. Monsieur Lazhar is human but a fake. In Algeria, he was a civil servant and restaurateur, not a teacher. He isn’t even a citizen of Canada. He’s struggling to stay in the country as a political refugee but the government has doubts about his story. It thinks Algeria is back to normal now. “Algeria is never completely normal,” he responds.
He may be a fake teacher but he’s genuine. He’s fussy and a little nervous. He’s scrupulous in manner. He wants the kids to learn. He has nightmares that, because he didn’t do his job correctly, they’ll become grown-ups but speak as children. A description for our entire culture.
Returning from a piano concerto, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) comments to his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) about the scuff marks on the lock to their beautiful high-ceilinged Paris apartment. They’re screwdriver marks. Someone has tried to break in. He dismisses the would-be thieves as amateurs, not professionals, but for the rest of the movie this feeling of imminent invasion and theft never goes away. It always feels like someone or something is about to come through the door because something is. The movie is about the most professional thief of all. The one we can’t keep out. The one who, in the end, takes everything.
If most movies lie to us or ply us with wish-fulfillment fantasies (we are handsome, good and victorious), the movies of German writer-director Michael Haneke do the opposite: they lay bare, in the starkest way, our greatest fears: We are not safe (“Funny Games”), we are not good (“The White Ribbon”), we have no privacy (“Caché”). Plus we have no idea what’s going on (all of the above). With “Amour,” he focuses on our greatest fear: We are going to die. And death, when it comes, won’t be easy and it won’t be pretty.
The trailers make “Footnote” seem like a lighthearted romp but there’s nothing lighthearted about it. Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a professor of Talmudic studies in Israel, as was his father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), before him. The younger Shkolnik is celebrated, the elder not. Eliezer’s tragedy, his long-stewing resentment, is that his life’s work was usurped by a lucky break by another scholar, Prof. Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who, a month before Eliezer was set to publish, simply found what Eliezer’s 30 years of careful, scientific study was attempting to point towards. His entire career is now seen as unnecessary and vaguely ridiculous. His one solace: a great scholar once mentioned him in a footnote. Every year, too, he applies for the Israel Prize, the most honored of honors, but never wins. This year, that changes. He’s walking to the library, as always, to continue his pointless research, when he receives a phone call from the committee chair congratulating him. The wrinkle? The committee called the wrong Prof. Shkolnik. The honor is supposed to go to the son.
The son finds out but keeps silent. The father finds out but keeps silent. Everything that isn’t said poisons what remains. The fiction Uriel creates to save his relationship with his father destroys his relationship with his father. The ending remains unknowable. It’s a Jewish ending, an Old Testament ending. It recalls the Yiddish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. “Footnote” is a comedy for God.
In 1915, Pres. Woodrow Wilson called “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s Confederate-friendly epic, “history written with lightning,” but I wouldn’t call this movie that. It’s history written as carefully as history should be. It’s well-researched and made dramatic and relevant. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), the most saintly of all presidents, isn’t presented here as a saint but as a smart, moral, political man, who, under extraordinary pressure from all sides, does what he has to do in order to do the right thing. His machinations aren’t clean. It takes a little bit of bad to do good. Progress is never easy. There are always slippery-slope arguments against it. Sure, free the slaves. Then what? Give Negroes the vote? Allow them into the House of Representatives? Give women the vote? Allow intermarriage? The preposterousness of where the road might take us prevents us from taking the first step. Then and now.
I once said of Jeffrey Wright’s Martin Luther King, Jr., that no one would ever do it better; I now say the same of Day-Lewis’ Lincoln. He only has to talk about his dreams to his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), with his stockinged feet up on the furniture, a kind of languid ease in his long-limbed body, and I’m his. He only has to quote Shakespeare one moment (“I could count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams”), and, in the next, ask Mary, in a colloquialism of the day, “How’s your coconut?” and I’m his. I remember when I was young, 10 or so, and we were visiting my father’s sister, Alice, and her husband, Ben, and when we had to leave I began to cry. Because I didn’t want to leave Uncle Ben. I liked being near him. He had a calm and gentle spirit that I and my immediate family did not. It felt comfortable to be around. I got that same feeling from Daniel Day-Lewis here. How does he do that? How do you act a calm and gentle spirit?
3. The Master
We’re on a Pacific island beach waiting out the end of the war, and Freddie, one Navy man of many, is already isolated from the rest. He’s cutting coconuts while the other men wrestle on the beach. They make a sand woman on the beach, hair flowing, legs open, and Freddie gets on top and starts pumping away. It’s funny for a second, then gets embarrassing fast. Freddie gets too into it. There’s too much need there. When we hear the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, Freddie and other men are aboard their ship searching for, I believe, gasoline, from the ship’s missiles. To drink. “Peace is here,” the announcer intones. You look at Freddie and think: No, it’s not.
If Freddie is a wrecked man, prone to bursts of sex and violence, Lancaster Dodd is an ebullient man who cannot abide dissent. Others call him ‘The Master’ but he lives in a post-World War II democracy that has just swept away the would-be masters of the world. Dissent lives. Thus his group, like all beginning religions, are forced to wander in the wilderness: from San Francisco to New York to Philadelphia to Phoenix, where The Cause, he hopes, will be reborn. But it’s a downward trajectory. All the while, they’re losing adherents. The movie is deeply felt and rendered, beautifully shot and art-directed, and acted by artists and professionals. It’s also a failure in terms of story. But I would still rather watch it again than almost any movie released this year.
2. End of Watch
“End of Watch,” written and directed by David Ayer (“Training Day”; “Harsh Times”), is powerful, original, funny and terrifying. It feels as authentic as anything that’s been filmed about cops. True, our guys run into more trouble in a year than most cops do in a lifetime; but the tone is right, the dialogue and acting so natural they verge on improvisational, and the vernacular so specific to police work you almost need a lexicon to understand what’s being said.
As for the Mexican drug cartel? It keeps on. Mike dies, it lives. He dies not even knowing the story he was in. One wonders if this isn’t a healthier ending than the wish-fulfillment fantasies Hollywood provides, or the kind of catharsis Aristotle recommended. We get no catharsis here, no justice, so maybe we search for it elsewhere. Maybe we try to make it happen elsewhere. At the least, “End of Watch” is a movie everyone who funds the illegal drug trade should see. Because no matter how much damage drugs do to you, the real damage isn’t done to you.
“De rouille et d’os” (“Rust and Bone”) is a beautiful film about tragic circumstances. In the hands of a lesser writer-director, it would be melodrama but Jacques Audiard (“Un Prophete”) makes poetry out of it. A bloody tooth, loosened during a fight, spins in slow motion on the pavement as if in dance. A woman whose legs have been cut off above the knee returns to the ocean, whose warm waters glisten. Later, with metal legs and cane, she walks down the steps at Marineland, where she once worked, and stands in silence before a large glass tank. She pats the glass once, twice. After a moment, a monster looms into view. An Orca. The Orca? The one who took her legs? One assumes not. One assumes that one has been killed but you never know and Audiard never says. We simply watch the whale move with her movements. It’s been trained, and she was one of its trainers. She’s confronting her past, finally, but it’s also a moment steeped in silence and mystery and beauty and forgiveness. It’s the best scene in the best movie of the year.
My Five Worst Movies of 2012
Last year about this time I posted the following:
Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also also polarizes my feelings. The good become very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.
A year later and my corrective-vision analogy stands corrected. This year felt like a lot of muddy middle. Nothing as good as “The Tree of Life” or “Un Prophete.” Nothing as bad as “Sucker Punch” or “Green Lantern.”
I thought about adding some high-profile films to my “worst of...” list, but in the end it didn't feel honest. I enjoyed “The Dark Knight Rises” enough in the theater, even as I was shaking my head away from it. “Cloud Atlas” collapsed on itself by the third act but there's talent there. I squirmed through the last third of “Silver Linings Playbook” but I liked a lot of what David O. Russell attempted.
So here we go. This is the fun one, kids: the Golden Globes of lists. Get a drink, sit back, and go, “Oh right. Ewww.”
Early on, Zeus tells Perseus, “You will learn that being half human makes you stronger than a God.” Then he adds, “not weaker,” so we know what stronger means. But it’s total bullshit. On the Mount of Idols, Ares, a full god, kicks Perseus’ ass. It’s not even close. He could break him in two. Why doesn’t he? It’s not in the story. Perseus has to overcome great odds, and even greater pain, to become the demigod version of Rocky Balboa or John McClane. He isn’t a character. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy. Everything about him is blurred. It’s the CGI that’s sharp and in focus.
“Wrath” gives us comic relief that's not funny, a battle-ready Andromeda who can’t battle, and a Perseus who forgets his entire raison d’etre from the first movie. In that film, Hades (Ralph Fiennes) killed his adopted parents and sister, and Perseus burns to take him out. He has the chance at the end of this movie. Zeus is dead, Hades is weak, Perseus eyes him. With revenge? Will he take him out now? Will he even reference his raison d’etre from the first movie? No. “All my power is spent,” Hades says. “Who knows? I might be stronger without it.” Then he walks away. Perseus watches him and ... smiles. Then he goes and kisses Andromeda. Because he’s supposed to. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy.
Yay! Snot Monster may have snot, but at least he's in focus...
The Devil bestrides the Earth again in the guise of another actor (Ciarán Hinds, replacing Peter Fonda), and he wants his son Danny back from his mother, Nadya. In his way? The Ghost Rider, of course. Or “The Rider” as he's called here. Is “Ghost” too silly now? Did it not test well? Is the term too associated with a ridiculous 1970s-era Marvel Comics character with a flaming skull and a flaming motorcycle who sells his soul to the Devil, then fights the Devil, even as he eats souls ostensibly for the Devil?
At one point the Rider wakes up in a hospital and Nic Cage gets to do crazy Nic Cage shit: asking for morphine and pills and yadda yaddas. When he and Nadya hook up, Nic Cage gets to say a few crazy Nic Cage lines: “No, I get it. You’re the devil’s baby mama.” Nic Cage has built the second-half of his career around intentionally stupid shit, and some of it would’ve been preferable to the paint-by-numbers plot we get here. At a diner, for example, after he and Nadya rescue Danny, and after seeing a father and son bonding at the diner for a few seconds, Johnny decides he wants to bond with Danny, too. Sure! His need is so palpable that Danny tells him, “Dude. You’re way cooler than the guys she hangs out with.” This, sadly, pleases Johnny. Is there anything worse than an adult who need the approval of a child? Who want to be cool in the eyes of children?
But then Danny is more grown-up than the overacting adults around him. He actually raises the question we’re all wondering. Aren’t I the Devil’s son? Isn’t that bad? Why save him? To which Johnny replies:
The power we have comes from a dark place. But it doesn’t mean we’re bad. We can do good. We can help people.
I thought the Rider didn’t help people? Oh right, that's what he said a half-hour before.
Nic Cage, Hack for Hire.
3. Dark Shadows
So Elizabeth wants the fact that Barnabus is a 200-year-old vampire kept secret from everyone, including the family, so she introduces him as Barnabus III. From England. Ha ha. All of these jokes fall flat. Then Barnabus meets the new governess, Victoria, who looks exactly like his long-lost true love, Josette, and discovers that his nemesis, Angelique, has survived all of these years and is now running the town. What does he do? Get revenge on Angelique? Court Victoria? Neither. He sets about restoring the family name and reputation. We get a montage—backed by the Carpenters’ “Top of the World”—of workers sprucing up Collinwood and the Collins Canning Factory opening its doors again. When Barnabus finally meets Angelique, she makes a pass at him; the second time they have rough sex. He also sucks the blood out of a band of hippies in the woods. Ha ha. Then he kills Dr. Hoffman, who, under the pretense of curing him of vampirism, and wanting eternal youth, tries to turn herself into a vampire. Before this, she goes down on him. Ha ha.
Throughout, director Tim Burton lets his freak flag fly. He paints Johnny Depp chalky white as in “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Willie Wonka,” and “Sweeney Todd.” He has the living and the dead raise a family again, as in “Beetlejuice.” But there’s no juice here. Burton’s always been a lousy storyteller, sacrificing plot and plausibility for imagery, but even the imagery here feels stale. Burton’s love of the dead finally feels dead.
How bad is this thing?
Near the end, our title character, Solweig (Déborah François), a cashier at a Target-like store, is being followed into the women’s locker room by the creepy floor manager, Mercier (Jean-Luc Couchard), who has just found out—ah ha!—that the mysterious blogger, misscheckingout.com, who has gotten over a million hits expounding on customer-service matters, and whose posts have led to the beginning of a nationwide strike by checkout girls, is, in fact ... Solweig! She’s the one who’s making the lives of management miserable! So what does he do with this information? How does he handle Solweig, who, he now knows, has the ear of the nation? He sexually assaults her, of course.
But wait! At that moment, passing by, is a handsome man dressed in a Santa Claus suit. (It’s Christmastime.) He’s named Charles (Nicolas Giraud), and he has a thing for Solweig, and she for him, because one night when it was snowing as prettily as it snows in snowglobes, she, in the midst of breaking up with a boyfriend we’ve never seen, slips in the snow and Charles emerges from a limo to help her up. Like in a fairy tale! He also gives her his phone number, which is subsequently made illegible by her bratty 10-year-old brother, so of course she can’t call and make a date and continue along the path of young love. Fortunately, he finds out about her. But isn't she a tutor? Why is she working as a cashier? Rather than ask, he dresses up as Santa Claus so he can spy on her without revealing himself. But when Mercier attempts to rape her, he bursts in, head-butts Mercier, gapes at Solweig, and flees.
But wait! Our heroine, who is sweet, pretty and rather self-satisfied for someone with such a shitty job, has just been assaulted by her scummy boss, then saved by the man of her dreams. What does she do? She follows the man of her dreams into the parking lot to ... berate him for making her lose her job. Seriously. “I’ve lost everything because of you!” she wails. Because he saved her from rape? From her boss? She can get fired for that? Besides, doesn’t she get it? A million hits. Talked about on the nightly news. How can she not see the upside of all of this? Surely it means a book deal. Maybe even a best-seller. Perhaps called, as this film is called, Les tribulations d'une caissière. Because we can see it. We can see it a mile off.
Apparently the French can make shitty movies, too. Vive le meme chose!
Remember all of those aging decrepit scouts in “Moneyball” who didn’t know shit compared with the sabermetric whiz kid with the computer (Jonah Hill)? Well, they’re back, baby, but this time they’re the heroes, with the lead scout played one of the most iconic figures in Hollywood history (Clint Eastwood), while the whiz kid with the computer is now played by the asshole who cuckolded George Clooney in “The Descendants” (Matthew Lillard). Consider it “Moneyball II: Revenge of the Decrepit Scouts.”
My early guess as to the film's resolution: The asshole sabermetrician will want the can't-miss prospect, named Bo, who's a tubby jerk, while the iconic scout will see some problem with the kid (maybe he has ... trouble with the curve?), and recommend against, but offer up Rigo, the modest, flame-throwing Hispanic kid, instead. All of this nearly comes to pass. Gus, with macular degeneration, hears that Bo has trouble with the curve, which is confirmed by his estranged daughter Mickey (Amy Adams). But the team GM assumes the asshole sabermetrician who cuckolded George Clooney knows what he’s talking about, and picks tubbo. Meanwhile, it's Mickey, in the midst of being passed up for a promotion at her sexist law firm, run by the Shawshank warden, who hears, then sees, then catches Rigo, and brings him to Turner Field to face Bo, who is hitting batting-practice pitches into the stands for the local press. It take Rigo all of five pitches (two fastballs, three curves) to dismantle the Braves’ No. 1 pick. I know. In the process, he is compared to: 1) Sandy Koufax, 2) Steve Carlton and 3) Randy Johnson. I know. Then Mickey becomes Rigo’s agent, Justin Timberlake returns for a kiss, and we get our Hollywood ending. I know.
It’s a long, slow trek to the painfully obvious. How painful? Like this:
And on your list?
Roger Ebert Says 2012 is the Best Movie Year ... This Decade
Rogert Ebert posted this on Facebook this morning:
The best year for movies this decade? You mean in three years? Isn't that like being the best-looking of the three stooges?
But I don't even agree with that, seeing, as I did, great things in movies in 2010 (“Un Prophete,” “Restrepo,” “The Social Network,” “True Grit,” “A Film Unfinished”) and 2011 (“The Tree of Life,” “Des hommes at des dieux,” “Young Adult,” “Moneyball,” “The Descendants”), but not so much this year. I think this has been a pretty lame year for movies, actually. I keep waiting to get stunned and it hasn't happened. I guess I don't know if it's me or the movies. Maybe Roger's right and I'm wrong. It's happened before.
I love that Roger included “End of Watch” among his top 10. Everyone is forgetting that one. And I suppose it won't be too difficult to find a top 10, particularly if I include documentaries and foreign films from 2011 that didn't get a U.S. release until 2012. But I'm not getting stunned at the movies this year. There are no movies like “L'heure d'ete” or “Un Prophete” or “The Tree of Life” where I think, “Let somebody beat that.”
Some come close:
- “Argo,” if it had focused more deeply on the characters and less on the difficult-to-believe thrill of the chase.
- “Lincoln,” if it hadn't tried to mythologize fore and aft.
- “The Avengers,” if it had held up on second viewing and wasn't about, you know, superstrong people and space invaders and Norse gods.
- “Les Misérables,” if it was truly interested in les misérables rather than love love love.
- “Life of Pi,” if its two stories could collapse into each other better.
- “The Master,” if it had created any kind of story with any kind of resonance.
But no clear knock-out. I'm reserving judgment on “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour” until they fucking arrive already.
15 Movies in 2012 That Were Worse than 'John Carter'
TIME magazine recently announced its 10 best and 10 worst list and had “John Carter” as the second-worst film of 2012, eclipsed only by “Cloud Atlas.” Jeff Wells, no fan of “Cloud Atlas,” objected. “Worse, even, than John Carter?” he writes. “That's saying something.”
I'll say it again: I liked “John Carter.” It's a good, original, heroic-epic story that got a bad rap from the get-go and then a worse rap because it died at the box office. It won't make my top 10 list but it will head my “Most Undeservedly Maligned Movies of 2012” list. If I put together such a beast.
In the meantime, to answer Wells' question, here's a list of 2012 movies I think are worse than “John Carter” (in alphabetical order):
- The Campaign
- Casa de mi Padre
- The Five-Year Engagement
- Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance
- Hello I Must Be Going
- The Hunger Games
- Lola Versus
- Men in Black 3
- Premium Rush
- Trouble with the Curve
- Wrath of the Titans
At least with “John Carter” I was always interested in where the story was going. With most of the above, I knew exactly where it was going and rolled my eyes when it got there.
Hell, I might even add this one.
Will make a lot of “10 worst” lists because it bombed at the box office not because it was bad.
What's Missing from AV Club's Top 50 Films of the 1990s?
Last week, the AV Club over at the Onion, which writes seriously about film, listed its top 50 films of the 1990s.
Not a bad time to do it. We're 12 years removed, the teenagers who saw movies then are now in their 30s and a little smarter, the folks who were in their 30s (me) are now nearing 50 and a little wearier. So ... not a bad moment to pause and collect and sort through.
This is the list they came up with:
- 50. Dead Man
- 49. American Movie
- 48. Ed Wood
- 47. Starship Troopers
- 46. Heavenly Creatures
- 45. The Limey
- 44. Metropolitan
- 43. Terminator 2
- 42. All About My Mother
- 41. Raise the Red Lantern
- 40. Trainspotting
- 39. The Blair Witch Project
- 38. Fast Cheap and Out of Control
- 37. Glengarry Glen Ross
- 36. L.A. Confidential
- 35. Naked
- 34. Seven
- 33. The Matrix
- 32. Close-Up
- 31. Paradise Lost
- 30. The Thin Red Line
- 29. Irma Vep
- 28. Election
- 27. Short Cuts
- 26. Eyes Wide Shut
- 25. Fight Club
- 24. Crumb
- 23. Carlito's Way
- 22. The Sweet Hereafter
- 21. Fargo
- 20. Red
- 19. Exotica
- 18. Schindler's List
- 17. Safe
- 16. The Big Lebowski
- 15. Groundhog Day
- 14. Hoop Dreams
- 13. Boogie Nights
- 12. Miller's Crossing
- 11. Barton Fink
- 10. Being John Malkovich
- 9. Rushmore
- 8. Unforgiven
- 7. Reservoir Dogs
- 6. Out of Sight
- 5. Chungking Express
- 4. Dazed and Confused
- 3. Toy Story 2
- 2. Pulp Fiction
- 1. Goodfellas
Not bad. I particularly like putting “Dazed and Confused” and “Rushmore” so high and not forgetting about “Crumb” and “Groundhog Day.”
Of course there were objections. Whenever you make a list, there are objections.
Specifically, some objected to the fact that there were no women directors on the list. As a result, critics such as Carrie Rickey suggested some female-directed movies, such as “Clueless” and “Point Break.” (Really, Carrie?) Slate piled on, too, with women and foreign and African-American-directed movies. Anything to get us away from the awful dreariness of live white males: You know, Scorsese, Tarantino, Eastwood, Wes Anderson. At least Slate quotes one of AV's critics, Scott Tobias, who defends their work, saying if there's bias its not AV's bias. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” he says. “The list raises questions about institutional bias in ’90s filmmaking here and abroad. In itself, it is neutral.”
But overall I agree. I think the objection from Rickey and Slate is a little silly and misses the bigger problem with the list:
Where the fuck is Michael Mann's “The Insider”?
Seriously. It's deep, serious, accessible, fascinating. It's about ordinary people under extraordinary pressure. It's about the preeminent issue of our time: how corporate profits trump integrity—scientific or journalistic or otherwise. It's about two men who sacrifice to win one battle in a war we are losing everywhere.
I'm not sure what my Top 50 films of the 1990s would look like. I don't even know what my Top 10 would look like. But at the least I can tell you what my top two would look like:
- 2. The Insider
- 1. The Thin Red Line
It's Late September: Do You Know Where Your Best Pictures Are?
I“m beginning to worry about the 2012 movie season. I know people think of the final three months of the year as the serious movie season, but for the last three years this hasn't been my experience.
And by this point in 2012?
I liked ”Footnote“ and ”Monsieur Lazhair“ well enough, both 2011 movies but released in the states in 2012, as well as ”Jiro Dreams of Sushi,“ ”The Avengers,“ ”The Woman in the Fifth,“ and ”End of Watch.“ But none of these stunned me, or worked their way inside me, or acted like a cresting wave showering me with clarity or epiphany. None of them made me look at the rest of the movies coming down the pike and think, ”Let's see you beat that.“
Did I miss something? Is the best still to come? I've seen ”The Master“ (review up soon), which is deeply and resonantly filmed, and beautifully acted. But there's a lot of ”buts“ there. Other critics loved ”Beasts of the Southern Wild“ and ”Moonrise Kingdom“ more than I did; I don't even think of them as Top 10 material. I have hopes for other films that are fast becoming the usual Oscar suspects—Ben Affleck's ”Argo,“ Steven Spielberg's ”Lincoln,“ Tom Hooper's ”Les Miserables,“ Ang Lee's ”Life of Pi“—but these are the usual Oscar suspects, meaning they're the best movies of the year that fit into preconceived Academy notions of ”best." It's a narrow field, even when expanded to 10 nominees.
Three months to go. Fingers crossed.
The Five Worst Movies of 2011
In my late twenties I got corrective lenses for the first time, for near-sightedness, and I remember how they not only clarified my vision but polarized the world. The muddy middle disappeared. Both beauty and ugly became sharper: the former's perfections, previously half-hidden, now dazzled, while the latter's imperfections, also half-hidden, were now sadly revealed. The glasses almost seemed unfair. Part of me felt the world would be a kinder place if we all walked around with a bit of myopia.
Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also also polarizes my feelings. The good become very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.
I think this explains why I'm always a little surprised when end-of-the-year pronouncements are made and the recent year in movies is found lacking. People said 2009 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Summer Hours' and 'Up' and 'A Serious Man' and 'Seraphine' and 'Avatar'?” People said 2010 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Un Prophete' and 'Restrepo' and 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network' and 'A Film Unfinished' and 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3'?”
Now people say it of 2011.
I'll get to the very, very good movies soon but first here's the godawful: the five worst movies I saw in 2011. Your results may vary.
Keep in mind, as an independent reviewer, I'm not called upon to review just anything the studios put out. So I never saw the following: “Bucky Larson,” “Jack and Jill,” “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son,” “Abduction,” “Atlas Shrugged” and anything starring Nicholas Cage.
5. “Cowboys & Aliens”: The aliens are scouts after our gold, and they’re kidnapping our people to see what it takes to kill us, all of us, but that’s not the problem with the movie. The problem with the movie is this: When deciding between doing what’s true for the characters or what furthers the clichés of the genre, the filmmakers, director Jon Favreau and his six screenwriters, always opt for the latter. Always. They’re not interested in the perspective of their 19th-century characters; they’re only interested in the perspective of their 21st-century audience. Dolarhyde and Lonergan (Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig) are hard and selfish not because life is hard and selfish but so they can redeem themselves in the end. The town’s name, Absolution, is a giveaway. Lonergan, always on the verge of leaving, always has to return as if it’s a surprise. Dolarhyde, a growling, racist cuss for the first half of the movie, has to bond with the orphaned boy; he has to come to an understanding with his half-Indian, bastard son (Adam Beach); and he has to save the Indian chief so the two of them, in the midst of battle, with death all around, can give each other a nod of understanding.
4. “The First Grader”: Would this have made my list if it hadn't opened the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival? I'm a member, and a fan, of SIFF, and love the fact that they resurrected the Uptown Theater, a block from my workplace, and are showing good movies there; but the organization also has a kind of upper-class, stupid liberal sensibiity that tends to trump, I don't know, aesthetics. That's how you wind up with “First Grader” on Opening Night. It's about Africans, in Africa, so it must be meaningful, even though the good in the movie are way good (and good-looking), and the bad are unjustifiably, incomprehensibly bad (and scowling), and the big reveal is no reveal at all. The movie focuses on an 84-year-old former Mau Mau warrior, Maruge (Oliver Litondo), who fights to go to first grade so he can read a letter on his own that the president of Kenya sent him. His teacher, Jane (a gorgeous Naomie Harris) backs him in the endeavor, but suffers from officials, who transfer her to another part of the country—until Maruge and the other students drive away the new teacher with stones and win Jane back. Yay! And after all this, Maruge has Jane read the letter for him anyway. OK. So what's in this letter we’ve waited the entire movie to hear? Well, the President of Kenya thanks Maruge for his service to his country; he also says Kenya is now independent because of people like him. Then Jane looks at him with proud, shining eyes, and he looks at her with proud, shining eyes, and the soundtrack gives us more generic African music, and we fade to a shot of the real Maruge, who died in 2009, and that’s the movie. To some of the honchos at SIFF this meant one thing: Opening Night. My thought: I got dressed up for this?
3. “War Horse”: Destined to go down as one of the worst movies to be nominated best picture. Detractors accuse Steven Spielberg of being “manipulative,” a criticism I've never really understood, since most directors are manipulative; that's what they do. Spielberg just tends to do it better. Not here, though. Let's look at the film's climax. The horse's true owner, Albert, has been gassed and blinded in the trenches of WWI, and Joey, the horse, after his magnificent gallop through the German trenches, has been injured and is due to be shot, and they’re like 50 yards from each other and don’t even know it. But the sergeant is given his orders and raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head. In that moment, before a familiar whistle is heard that startles Joey, that reminds him of Devon, England, a whistle that’s repeated twice more until the crowd of soldiers parts, miraculously revealing Albert, the man we already knew was there, and the music wells up, and Albert makes his case that the horse is his, that it has white hooves and a white diamond-shaped mark on its forehead, which can’t be seen for all the mud, but which is slowly, miraculously revealed even though we know that that, too, is already there; before all of this, in that moment when Sgt. Fry raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head, I had but one amused thought: I dare ya, Steven.
2. “Green Lantern”: Some movies have absurdly long backstories, but none are more absurd or longer than the one in “Green Lantern.” These are the first words were hear, in voice-over:
Billions of years ago, a group of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower. These immortals, the guardians of the universe, built a world from where they could watch over all of existence: the planet Oa. A ring powered by the energy of will was sent to every sector of the universe to select or recruit. In order to be chosen by the ring, one had to be without fear. Together these recruits formed the intergalactic peacekeepers known as the Green Lantern Corps.
Lord, save me now. And half of it's a lie! Hal Jordan is told he reeks of fear but this turns out to be his strength: the ability to admit fear and act anyway. So we start out with a point of view that isn't ours (who is truly without fear?) only to arrive at one that is (admitting and overcoming fear is a good thing, etc.). Meanwhile, the longstanding heroes of the movie, the Green Lantern Corps, guardians of the universe, are actually like little Nazis: all willpower and no professed fear and shooting their beams into the sky during some kind of intergalatic bund rally. They've spent a billion years searching for the fearless to wear powerful rings when, as Hal Jordan is told during his training: “The ring creates only what you can imagine.” So why don't they choose someone with imagination? Wouldn't that be better? I suppose the same can be asked of DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures.
1. “Sucker Punch”: There's a rogue group of critics out there who are trying to elevate this movie into, in Kim Morgan's words, “one of the most misunderstood, feminist, wildly experimental, anti-patriarchy pictures this year.” A critic named Nordling on the Ain't It Cool site seems to agree with her. He writes:
“The film becomes an opportunity for [director Zack] Snyder to wear his influences on his sleeve — from a World War I trench warfare sequence where anime mech meets clockwork zombies to a medieval siege complete with orcs and a really big dragon — think Vermithrax, not REIGN OF FIRE — as our heroines do battle using a World War II Flying Fortress. I imagine everything Zack Snyder ever said 'Cool!' at in passing is in this film in some way or another.”
Question: Aren't they praising the film for opposite reasons? She thinks Snyder is involved in deconstruction, he thinks celebration. Or is he deconstructing on one level (Fantasy I) and celebrating on another (Fantasy II)? A bigger problem is that everything Snyder and Nordling think is cool, I think is crap. “Where anime mech meets clockwork zombies” makes me think: “Mech.”
Both Nordling and I agree that the movie is like a video game but for him this is a huge positive and for me it's a huge negative. He's a gamer, I'm not (STE at Xbox circa 2000-2003 notwithstanding). What he doesn't tell us is why a movie that's like a video game—that tells its story vertically rather than horizontally—is actually worth watching. Isn't the point of a video game to play it? To have some measure of control? To me, there are few things more boring than watching someone else play a video game.
Switching metaphors, Nordling writes:
“You're basically watching Snyder riff on his guitar for two hours. That's okay if you like that sort of thing, because Snyder's one of the best in the business. But if you can't stomach the way Snyder spirals, jazzlike, through the film's setpieces, you're going to be fairly miserable.”
Lord save us from jazz metaphors. The world is full of people who think they can riff, jazzlike, on musical instruments, just as it's full of people who think they can write great free-verse poetry. Most can't. Most need structure and discipline. Snyder is like that. He's the guy who thinks he's a great free-verse poet when nothing he says is close to profound or beautiful.
Bottom line: “Sucker Punch” is a movie in which there's violence without consequence, titillation without release, and a gritty, comic-book surrealism masking as realism. The women are dolled up for sex, prone to violence, and treated as extras in their own story. The only thing more shabbily treated is the whole of human history, which is seen as a backdrop for cool stuff to happen. Tossing the worst aspects of our culture into one movie—either to deconstruct the worst aspects of our culture or to celebrate them—doesn't change the fact that Snyder is in fact tossing the worst aspects of our culture into one movie. He's created a shit sundae. To critics like Morgan and Nording, words like “meta” are the cherry on top of this sundae. To me, it's still a shit sundae. Who's hungry?
My Top 10 Movies of 2011 (January-August)
I meant to do this in June, the halfway point of the year, but I was scrambling with work, reviews, and prep for a week's vacation in Minnesota and never got around to it. The end of July passed, too, without an attempt. But the beginning of September is actually a good place for this. Awards season is starting, all the critics with inside knowledge are predicting the nominees before they've seen the films (and sometimes before we've heard of the films), and the first 8 months, the ones we just lived through, are dismissed as fun but inconsequential.
But not all were inconsequential.
Here are the movies from the first 8 months of the year I'm glad I saw:
10. Captain America: The First Avenger: Cap was my second-favorite Marvel character in the mid-1970s, after Spider-Man, and Joe Johnston and all of his screenwriters did Cap right. They improved upon him, as you need to do, since comic book origins were often pretty lame back then. They gave Steve Rogers a backstory here. They held so long on the skinny, asthmatic Steve Rogers (a mere blip in the comic books), that even when he turns into the real Chris Evans, muscles both huge and baby-smooth, we never lose sight of the scrappy, scrawny dude he was. Is. Only the ending of the movie is a misfire. Review excerpt:
Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) is a soldier and wants a soldier—a real soldier, not some 98-pound asthmatic—to be the first super-soldier. The back-and-forth between Phillips and Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is wonderful—particularly in the scene where Phillips lets loose a dummy grenade amid the candidates and only Rogers falls upon it—because Jones and Tucci are so good. The amused warmth in Tucci’s eyes; the hardened authenticity in Jones’ face. We should, in fact, pause to contemplate Tommy Lee Jones for a second. Time and again, he is asked to play the guy tracking or getting in the way of the ostensible hero, yet we love his character all the more for it. Because his character has character? Because he’s a man with a strict adherence to his job but not to his point-of-view? Because if you give him enough evidence, he’ll change? Worth an essay, one day.
9. Win Win: I think of quiet and calm, as with most of Tom McCarthy's movies, along with a touch of Hollywood (the winning Hollywood wrestling scenes), and an attempt at getting at the ordinary lives of folks in the middle of the global financial meltdown. What ethics will you give up in order to make financial ends meet? But McCarthy doesn't get it quite right: Review excerpt:
The ethical lapse is confronted personally but not penalized professionally, while the solution Mike feared in the beginning—getting a second job as a bartender—is the solution he embraces in the end. It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending but there are Hollywood elements to it. The economic crisis in the film world means having to take a second job; the economic crisis in the real world means being unable to find the first.
8. Buck: The documentary isn't as good as its subject, Buck Brannaman, the original horse whisperer, and the ending is again a misfire. Why was the spoiled horse put down? What did Buck think of this? Why wasn't he interviewed about it? But Brannaman himself—the abused boy who becomes an empathetic communicator with animals most of us can't fathom—makes it all worthwhile. Excerpt:
He “starts” horses, he says, he doesn’t break them. His approach is discipline without punishment, empathy without sentimentality. Horse people come to his seminars skeptical and leave stunned. Their tough love doesn’t work. Their soft love doesn’t work. But Buck gets in the ring and in five minutes their horse is following him around like a dog. He takes an unfocused horse and focuses him. He takes a skittish horse and calms him. The advice he gives goes beyond horses.
7. Tabloid: A Love Story: The creepiness of Errol Morris' latest documentary hasn't left me. It's about some of the worst aspects of our modern culture. It's about a kind of massive self-delusion. It's also about the way female power diminishes with time and age and weight. Excerpt:
Once upon a time she was a beauty queen, blonde with an OK face and a good body, and she used that to her advantage. She got men to do things for her because of that advantage. But time took it away. Yet there she was, still talking, still presenting her case, as if she still had that power. And it’s her very insistence that she still has that power that reminds us of the shallowness of that power. If it had been Angelina Jolie outside the SIFF screening, we would’ve been captivated and maybe even sympathetic. That’s awful... what he promised you... what he did to you... Instead some short, fat, dumpy woman was yakking away. About something. As if we cared. In a way, nothing reveals how nuts she is more than this fact: She thinks we still care even though she looks like she does.
6. The Housemaid: The film begins in almost cinema verite fashion, becomes a sexy thriller, with the inevitable subsequent violence and death and search for revenge, and ends in almost David Lynchian fashion. But it's the sexiness, the heavy sexiness of the film, that has stayed with me. Excerpt:
We know what’s going to happen, of course. We’ve seen the poster—Eun-yi crouched before a bathtub, all bare legs and apron, something breathless in her face—and we’ve read the synopsis, full of words like “erotic” and “steamy.” That’s what draws us in. That’s why we’re in the audience. But those adjectives are slightly misleading. At a mountain resort, yes, Mr. Goh enters the servant quarters with a bottle of wine, demands Eun-yi reveal her body, feels her up, demands and receives oral sex. But nothing is particularly “steamy.” This is a cold thriller. It’s filmed cold, its people are cold, they live in a cold mansion. Dark blues and steel dominate. The first words in the movie, in fact, are “It’s cold, where should we go?” Only the revenge at the end is served hot.
5. The Trip: I saw this a month ago (two months ago?) but never wrote the review. Will soon. It's a documentary, but the fictional kind, a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” type of documentry, in which Steve Coogan plays Steve Coogan, on a road trip with a friend, Rob Brydon, played Rob Brydon. Coogan is the fussy, lonely egotist while Brydon is the friendly everyman—we get that at the get-go—but by the end it's Coogan we identify with. He may be a successful actor and star, and a prick, but there's this sense that life is passing him by and he'll never be able to do what he wants to do. Brydon keeps trotting out a popular character he does on the BBC, the “small man in a box.” That's Coogan. That's all of us.
4. Bridesmaids: Funniest movie of the year. Hands down. My fear is that its success ($162 million, 9th-best box office of the year so far) will either lead to nothing, no new female-centered comedies, or they'll make dopey versions and then give up when they don't succeed. A reminder, Hollywood: The key to the comedy is in the relationships. I could watch, for example, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudoph riff over breakfast for an entire movie. “My Breakfast with Maya.” I'd pay to see that. Excerpt:
She’s her own worst enemy. She keeps going back to the wrong guy (Ted), keeps ignoring the right guy, Irish cop Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd). She loses her job, is forced to move home with her mother (Jill Clayburgh, the original unmarried woman), and winds up crying on the couch to Tom Hanks in “Castaway.” We’ve seen this kind of thing before yet it feels different here. It’s funnier, yes, but it also feels truer. The way people try to talk Annie out of her downward spiral and the way she doesn’t listen. There’s a scene where, after Rhodes encourages her to bake again, she does, she bakes a glorious cupcake, topped with all kinds of candied configurations. Then she stares at it on the counter, unhappily. Then she eats it, unhappily. Not because she wants the cupcake, one assumes, but because she doesn’t want to make the cupcake. Because baking isn’t satisfying what it used to satisfy.
3. Midnight in Paris: Welcome back, Woody. How I've missed you. There's a kind of love story here (with Marion Cotillard's character) and an anti-love story (with Rachel McAdams' character) but the true love is with art and literature; with things that matter in a world where little does. It's about finding your club—the people with whom you belong. And in Owen Wilson, Woody has finally found the protagonist best able to replace himself. Wilson is west-coast Woody. He's able to do Woody and still be himself. Excerpt:
It’s not until they go to another bar and meet Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) that ... It’s less the other shoe dropping than the jaw dropping. It’s giving in to the fantasy, which Gil does when he asks Hemingway to read his manuscript. This Hemingway is a fully formed version who talks as Hemingway writes. When Gil praises his book—most likely “In Our Time”—Hemingway responds, “It was a good book because it was an honest book, and that's what war does to men. And there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it's not only noble but brave.” Hemingway talks moveable feasts and Fitzgerald calls Gil “old chap,” as if he were Gatsby, which not only makes sense—since, you could argue, all of this is in Gil’s head, so he’s not dealing with the real Hemingway and Fitzgerald but his versions of them—but it’s fun, too.
2. Des hommes et des dieux: This 2010 Cesar winner for le meiuller film is a monastic movie that transcends the world. It's about the beginning of what feels like the fundamental battle of our time, extreme Islamism vs. the rest of us. It's also based upon a true story: a group of Cistercian monks living in Algeria in the mid-1990s, who are caught in a civil war between religious extremists and a corrupt government but refuse to leave. It has a humble, day-to-day feel, then somehow expands in an existential manner. Excerpt:
Luc (the great French actor Michael Lonsdale) is gentle with patients and impatient with government officials questioning his patients. “I’m not scared of death,” he tells Christian at one point; then adds with a smile, a touch of monastic jocularity perhaps: “I’m a free man.” In an early scene, he sits on a bench in the winter sun talking to a local girl about love. She wonders what it feels like, and we, or the romantics in us, suspect she’s in love. When he gives her a description of love that is both simple and beautiful—“Something inside you comes alive...” he says, “but you’re in turmoil, especially the first time”—she responds, No, she’s never felt that, and certainly not with the boy her parents want her to marry. “Oh, c’est ca,” Luc answers. She asks Luc if he’s ever been in love and he answers, yes, several times. “Then I experienced an even greater love and I answered that call. Sixty years ago.” It’s such a beautiful scene I didn’t want to leave it. It shows us not only how much these Christian monks are part of the life of this Muslim village but why. They don’t proselytize about Jesus’ love; they quietly demonstrate it.
1. The Tree of Life: The ending doesn't work but it's still the best movie of the year. That's how powerful the rest of it is. That's how grand Terrence Malick's ambition and vision is. For him, it's not enough to give us the tale of a boy growing up in Waco, Tex., in the 1950s, caught between the love of his mother and the demands of his father, caught between good and bad, between the way of grace and the way of nature. No, Malick has to bracket this story with the beginning and end of time. He has to give us the earth forming and life beginning and moving to land. He has to remind us, as he reminded us with the film's epigraph, of God's response to Job: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Malick, who deals in immensity, wants to remind us of the immensity of those lines. And does. Excerpt:
When the father (Brad Pitt) returns, excited by his trips to China and Germany, things get worse. It’s a clash of the ways of nature. Jack sees his father flirting with a waitress, keeping the dollar bill just out of her grasp, and it’s like an earlier scene at school, where Jack had done the same with a pretty girl correcting his paper. He sees his father working under his jacked-up car, and he knows how easy it would be to kick the jack away. He actually looks around to see if anyone is watching. Even his prayers are now the way of nature rather than the way of grace: “Please, God, kill him. Let him die.” Then his father’s plant closes and his father returns diminished and the family is forced to move. The father calls Jack his sweet boy but Jack says, “I’m as bad as you are. I’m more like you than her.”
What about you? What did you see this year that was worth it?
Top 10 Superhero Scenes (Circa 2007)
I wrote the following for MSNBC.com in June 2007 to coincide with the opening of “Fantastic Four 2,” but it was in the slideshow format, a format that has since been buried by their new big-type interface. Thought I'd resurrect the piece while asking the following: Tons of superhero movies have come out since. Which scenes would you include now? Something from “The Dark Knight”? “Iron Man”? “Iron Man 2”? “Watchmen”? “The Spirit”? “The Green Hornet”? My complaint from four years ago still seems true today ...
Top 10 Superhero Scenes
In the Golden Age of superhero movies, the best scenes involve revelation
By Erik Lundegaard
I thought this would be easy. Best superhero scenes. I rattled them off in my head: Superman doing this, Spider-Man doing that, the X-Men doing the other.
Then I tried thinking of scenes that didn’t involve these guys.
This is supposed to be the golden age of superhero movies, but beyond the first two installments of “Spider-Man” and “X-Men,” what’s been good? “Fantastic Four 2: The Rise of the Silver Surfer” is being released this month, and some of the trailers look cool, but should we hold our breath? The first “F.F.” stunk. So did “Hulk,” “Daredevil,” “Catwoman,” “Elektra,” “Ghost Rider,” on and on. Superhero movies are supposed to soar but most of these limp. Some just lay there, quivering. They are the movie equivalent of what happens to Senator Kelly in “X-Men”: Splooosh!
Still I cobbled a list together. Turns out what’s memorable is revelation: of the hero’s power, of the hero’s love, of the hero’s identity. At least that’s what’s memorable to me. You may be one of those guys who thinks there’s nothing cooler than a superhero brooding on a rooftop or cathedral spire. At night. In the rain. Good luck with that.
I tried to spread things out by choosing only one scene per movie. One movie was so good, however, it got two scenes. Let the second-guessing begin.
10. “What are you???”
Enter: The Bat in Tim Burton's “Batman”
Director Tim Burton plays with us right from the start. A couple, with a small boy, try to hail a cab in a section of Gotham where theater and crime meet. Could this be a young Bruce Wayne and his parents?
Nope. It’s the thieves who rob them we’re interested in. As they count their loot on a nearby rooftop, one worries over what happened to Johnny Gobs. “I hear The Bat got him,” he says. The other is disbelieving “The Bat?...”
Sitting in a theater in 1989, this was music to my ears. Our hero wasn’t yet “Batman,” your friendly neighborhood crime fighter, or even “The Bat-Man,” a creature of the night. He was just “The Bat,” and all that entailed — including flying and drinking blood.
Burton, a B-horror fan, actually gives us Batman’s intro from the crooks’ perspective, as if it’s a horror movie. He descends in silhouette to Danny Elfman’s dark, brilliant score. Freaked, the crooks shoot and run, only to see his shadow rise behind them like a vampire. He knocks out the first dude; the disbelieving one runs, is tripped up, and is slowly pulled towards this dark creature, who holds him over the roof’s ledge. Then we get their famous exchange: “What are you???” “I’m Batman.”
The entire series went downhill from there. Batman quickly became friendly and familiar, with too many gadgets, too many villains, and too many sidekicks. But at least we have this one scene and the dark purity it suggests.
9. “Let’s put more.”
A hero begins to realize his strength in “Unbreakable”
M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are all about slow revelation. “Oh, so I’m dead!” “Oh, so that’s why God killed my wife!” “Oh, so we're actually living in the 20th century!” His movies have a dreamlike quality because his protagonists don’t know who they are yet. His movies are all about waking up.
David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sole survivor of a train wreck outside Philadelphia, becomes the focus of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an art and comic collector who was born with osteogenesis-something. His bones snap easily, in other words. He’s infinitely breakable. But he has a theory of opposites. He believes if there’s someone like him, then there must be someone who is the opposite of him. Someone unbreakable. Someone like David.
More, he believes the superpowers in comics may be an exaggeration of truth, but truth nonetheless; that there’s a group of strong, unbreakable people put here to protect us. David thinks he’s nuts. David’s son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), is more open to the idea.
So in the basement Joseph helps David lift weights. “How much did you put on?” David asks after bench-pressing the weight. He adds it up himself: 250 pounds. Too much. Joseph apologizes and adjusts the weights. David lifts again, then asks how much he took off. Joseph admits, “I lied.” The camera closes in on David as he realizes his son added weight. And he was still able to lift it. Then the two add all the weights in the basement, plus paint cans dangling off the sides, and David lifts that, too. He is beginning to realize his true power. He is beginning to wake up.
The death of Uncle Ben in “Spider-Man”
Spider-Man has one of the best psychological motivations for fighting crime, and the first “Spider-Man” movie actually improved upon it.
Instead of letting the Burglar go out of pure selfishness, as Peter does in Amazing Fantasy #15, here he lets him go to get revenge on the wrestling promoter who just screwed him out of $2900. And we’re with him. “Way to get the bastard,” we think.
Outside there’s a crowd and flashing lights. Then something pulls Peter toward the crowd and he sees what everyone is rubber-necking: Uncle Ben lying bleeding to death. In the comic, Peter is simply told his Uncle Ben is dead. Here he gets to speak to him. At first this worried me. “Oh crap,” I thought, “He’s gonna blah blah blah and then die. It’s gonna stink.” But Cliff Robertson delivers. Peter’s voice seems to call him from a faraway place and he looks confused and scared to be where he is, then grateful, grateful to see the face of his nephew. He says his name once, twice, a gurgle in his voice. Then he slips away.
Later, Peter will realize the man who killed Uncle Ben is the Burglar he let go (allowing him to kill Uncle Ben), and so he will fight crime, not for revenge, as Batman does, or simply to do good, as Superman does, but out of guilt. Not only is guilt a more complex, more adult emotion, it’s more universal. Few of us walk around every day with revenge in our hearts, but the weight of the guilt in the world is heavier than gravity.
7. “Go Aquaman, go!”
The definition of a hero in Aquaman”
OK, so this movie doesn’t really exist. The making of “Aquaman” was the main story arc during season 2 of HBO’s “Entourage,” and season 3 begins with its opening weekend.
At one point our boys take in a matinee on a scorching Friday afternoon and we get this scene from the fictional movie. First a long shot of the Santa Monica pier. People in panic. Then we see a tux-wearing Aquaman, actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), walking toward what everyone’s fleeing. He undoes his tie. More panic. A girl drops her doll. Now Aquaman is running and everyone is streaming in the opposite direction and the music builds until finally we see the danger: a tidal wave about to hit L.A. And just as Aquaman leaps off the pier and into the tidal wave...the power in the theater goes out. Part of a series of rolling blackouts in California that may or may not affect “Aquaman”’s opening B.O. totals.
At this point a groan goes up in the theater and it was echoed by me at home. For days afterward I had a visceral urge to see this movie that didn’t exist. And I never even liked Aquaman. Who did? That’s part of the in-joke on “Entourage.” Yet director Julian Farino, filming in half a day, on no budget, in part homage/part satire of superhero flicks, makes it work better than filmmakers given years and hundreds of millions of dollars. He gives us the definition of a hero: the man who runs toward what everyone is fleeing.
So maybe Julian Farino should get the next big superhero movie? (Update: Nope. But he is giving us “The Oranges.”)
6. “When they come out, does it hurt?”
What Wolverine brings to a knife fight in “X-Men”
Let’s face it: When we get picked on, most of us acknowledge, in some core part of us, the logic in choice of victims. “Gotta hand it to them, they picked the right guy,” we think as we get pummelled.
That’s often the secret thrill of superhero movies. Some ordinary person (Clark Kent, Peter Parker) gets picked on and we get to think: They’re messing with the wrong guy.
The introduction of Wolverine in “X-Men” is one such example. Thanks to the cage match we already know he’s the toughest guy in the bar. But one defeated opponent can’t deal with his loss and bugs Wolverine, who just wants to be left alone with his cigar and his beer. The guy whispers, “I know what you are.” Then he pulls a knife.
Snkt! Out come the claws.
But now the bartender presses a shotgun to Wolverine’s neck and says, “Get out of my bar, freak.” There’s a beat or two before Wolverine slices the shotgun in two.
You know the phrase “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight”? This is the update.
5. “You’ll never be alone.”
Superman discovers he’s no longer the last son of Krypton in “Superman Returns”
Who knew the big guy was so troubled?
In “Superman,’ Jor-El tells Lara, before they send baby Kal-El to earth, “He will never be alone,” but nearly 30 years later, in “Superman Returns,” director Bryan Singer begs to differ. For five years Superman abandons earth on the slim hope that some part of Krypton still exists. He hangs in outer space. Lois hates him. You get a real sense of, if not Superman’s loneliness, then at least his aloneness. “I’m all that’s left,” he tells Ma Kent.
Which is why the most emotional scene in the movie is Superman’s realization that he has a son. What he tells the sleeping boy, as he watches him with pride and gratitude, he could now be telling himself: “You will be different. Sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast. But you’ll never be alone.”
The movie begins with Superman’s failed search for Krypton. It ends with a different lesson: Krypton lives.
4. “I’m the worst one.”
There goes the neighborhood in “X2”
You kinda wonder about Ronny Drake, don’t you? His older brother, Bobby, is coming out to the family as a mutant, as “Iceman,” and Ronny runs upstairs and immediately phones the cops, telling them that he and his family are being held hostage by a bunch of mutants. So the next thing you know, even as Mom is asking Bobby, with a subtext so obvious it’s supratext, “Have you tried not being a mutant?,” the cops surround the place. Wolverine leads the student-mutants outside but the cops use excessive force. They crash into the Drake household and throw mom and pop against the wall. One nervous cop shoots Wolverine in the forehead. The others are told to hit the dirt. They do. Except for one. Pyro keeps standing. A female cop tells him, “We don’t want to hurt you, kid,” and the camera closes in on him, breathing anxiously.
The X-Men have always been seen as a metaphor for an embattled minority, often gay, since so many “pass” or hide their powers, but a civil rights metaphor works even better. In this sense, Professor X is Martin Luther King, Jr. (trying to talk sense to an oppressive majority), while Magneto is more like Malcolm X. At the end of “X-Men,” he even uses Malcolm’s most famous line: “There’s still a war coming, Charles, and I intend to fight it by any means necessary.”
Pyro will soon be recruited by Magneto, who will tell him, “You are a God among insects,” and outside the Drake household, in suburban Boston, he’s about the demonstrate it. More, we want him to demonstrate it. If the thrill in Wolverine’s introduction is this: “You don’t know who you’re messing with,” then the thrill, as Pyro stands there, and the female cop tells him, “We don’t want to hurt you, kid,” is this: You really don’t know who you’re messing with.
3. “He’s...just a kid.”
The passion of the Spider-Man in “Spider-Man 2”
It’s not just the best battle between superhero and supervillain on film, contained, as it is, within a small enclosed space: a moving (and, of course, non-existent) “el” in Manhattan. No, the filmmakers up the ante. They bring in the religious metaphor.
First the battle. After fighting high over Manhattan, Doc Ock and Spider-Man land on a moving commuter train. Passengers shriek. Spidey keeps getting knocked off and slinging his way back on. Doc Ock grabs two passengers and throws them to the winds. Spidey saves both.
At this point you can almost hear the “Bah!” from Doc Ock and he goes for bigger fish by accelerating the train and destroying the controls, leaving it shooting like a bullet through midtown Manhattan. Spidey has to take off his mask, temporarily aflame, and his spider senses tell him they’ll soon run out of track. His solution? Webbing onto nearby buildings and using himself, at the head of the train, to slow it and stop it. In the process he exhausts himself and loses consciousness.
Now comes the religious metaphor. As the music turns ethereal, the hero with special powers, who has sacrificed himself in a cross-like pose for the greater good, is passed back, in pieta fashion, by the passengers, who lay him down. They wonder if he’s still alive. Has he died for them?
Then one passenger states the obvious: “He’s...just a kid.”
Which says it all. If Peter Parker’s secret is that he’s truly powerful, Spider-Man’s secret is that he’s truly vulnerable. He is...just a kid.
2. “You’ve got me? Who’s got you!?”
Superman saves Lois (for the first time) in “Superman”
Besides a brief glimpse at the Fortress of Solitude, we don’t see Superman until more than an hour into the movie. Once he hits Metropolis, Clark, re-made as a nerd, gets a job at The Daily Planet, meets Lois and Jimmy, meets Rex Reed of all people, and saves Lois from a mugger. He tries to make a date with her but she’s taking a helicopter to meet Air Force One.
Ah, but those troublesome cables. One breaks loose, gets tangled with the helicopter during lift-off, the thing crashes, Lois screams. The helicopter is hanging, passenger-end out, over the edge of a skyscraper, and Lois is looking at, what, a 50-story fall? Always adept at making a bad situation worse, she unbuckles her seatbelt, slips, falls, and dangles by a cord. The crowd below watches, fascinated and horrified.
Enter Clark. As he exits the building, he picks her hat off the ground, looks up, and we’re off. With a phone-booth site gag for the oldsters, and a ‘70s-style pimp joke for the youngsters, the John Williams’ score begins to build and Clark morphs into Superman, just as Lois slips and falls and the horrified crowd resigns itself to her death. Then a streak cuts across the sky and an onlooker asks, “What the hell is that?”
What is it? It’s our greatest wish fulfillment. The man who is to adults as adults are to babies. The one who’s always there to break our fall with seemingly magic strength and abilities.
What helps make the scene is not just Superman’s majestic calm but Lois’ disbelief. The crowd below — prodding us, the theater audience — breaks into applause too easily. A flying man? Who can grab a helicopter effortlessly? They should be stunned into silence. Instead they react as if someone just hit an 8th inning homerun. Hooray! But Lois looks stricken, like she’s lost her mind.
I saw “Superman” six times as a kid and again on television in college. When this scene was over, my friend Todd and I looked at each other. Both of us were grinning ear-to-ear. It’s still my reaction.
1. “Hi... This is really heavy.”
The big reveal in “Spider-Man 2”
It’s near the end of the movie and once again Spider-Man takes off his mask. But this time it makes sense. He’s revealing his humanity to Doc Ock in order to bring out the humanity in Doc Ock. It works. Octavius agrees to sacrifice himself and destroy his experiment in order to save the city. Spider-Man watches him go.
Then he turns and there’s Mary Jane and we get the shot: the revelation of a superhero’s identity, power and love all in one. It’s the culmination of 100 years of superhero making. From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects me (Clark), but she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies.
And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
Kirsten Dunst, bless her heart, pulls it off. A shocked intake of breath, a camera close-up as myriad emotions cross her face, ending in a small, grateful smile. It all makes sense now.
I have to admit, when Peter Parker’s gaze goes from Mary Jane to the roof collapsing above her, I thought: Oh crap, they’re not going to let this last. I thought: She’ll probably get hit on the head and develop amnesia and blah blah blah. I’d seen it a million times. I’d see it again with Harry Osborne in “Spider-Man 3.”
Bless their hearts, they didn’t go this route. Instead an unmasked Spider-Man stops the roof. And then they do something really, really smart. They have him act like Peter Parker. “Hi,” he says, all goofy and tongue-tied. And then: “This is really heavy.”
Of course once the disconnect is connected, where do you go? In most stories you don’t. You say: The End. But the movie business is a business, and if there’s money to be made it’s made. Which is why we got “Spider-Man 3.” But we don’t have to get into that until I write about the 10 worst superhero scenes.
--Erik Lundegaard wonders what’s holding up that Captain America movie. He can be reached at ...
The Tardiest and Positively Last List of TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2010
The movie year increasingly reminds me of the old video game “Space Invaders.” In the beginning, the invaders drop down intermittently and at a snail's pace—easy pickings—but as the game progresses they come fast and furious until you can't keep up, and then ... Blam! Game over.
That's my movie year. It starts out slowly, luxuriously, with huge gaps between one good film (“The Ghost Writer”) and another (“Un Prophete”). The dashed hopes of spring (“Kick Ass”) eventually give way to the heat of summer blockbusters (“Toy Story 3”; “Inception”). In fall, there's September pretenders (“The American”), October surprises (“The Social Network”), but before you know it you're inundated (“Black Fair Rabbit Fighter Job Speech Grit”) until ... Blam! Game over.
Long way of sayng I should've posted this sooner but kept trying to pick up all those I missed. Then I looked around and it was February and I knew I had to go with what I've got.
This is what I've got.
10. “Inside Job” is the first of three documentaries in my Top 10. It's the least powerful but probably the most necessary since it goes into the whys and hows of the global financial meltdown, which most of us, including especially me, don't quite understand yet. The talking heads we want (Henry Paulson; Larry Summers) aren't talking, of course, but enough middle-management types, flattered to be asked, are. My favorite? Little Freddy Mishkin, tanned and suited up, who hems and haws through a series of questions, including one on a 2006 independent study he co-authored, for $125,000, for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce. He called it “Financial Stability in Iceland.” This was just before the Icelandic economy collapsed disastrously. So now in his CV it's called “Financial Instability in Iceland.” When questioned on the switch, he responds with his usual grace: “Well, I don't know, if, whatever it is, is, the, uh, the thing—if it's a typo, there's a typo.” Review excerpt:
Most of us struggle to find something we’re good at, and for which we can get paid, and, if we’re lucky, we do this thing for 40 to 50 years until we can hopefully retire with a bit of comfort. And while we’re doing this thing, we’re putting our money, bit by bit, into a room, which is where other people, bit by bit, are putting their money, too. So there’s a huge pile of money in this room. Now there’s another group of people who are attracted to this room for the pile of money. They believe they can take that pile of money, our money, and turn it into a bigger pile of money, a lot of which will be their money. But while they’re doing this magic act, they don’t want anyone to watch. Because we can trust them. Because they are self-regulating. Because what could possibly go wrong?
9. I had problems with “The Ghostwriter,” particularly the ending, in which the Ghost (Ewan McGregor) figures it all out then gives it all up to his enemies, the faux-Bush administration, and dies two seconds later. It's as if U.S. government agencies are quick, coordinated and supersmart rather than the slow, clumsy battleships we know them to be. So I never thought this movie would make my top 10. It's the weight of it that finally won me over. It's the images that stayed in my head: the lone SUV, alarm blaring, on the ferry; McGregor next to the full-paned window revealing the dunes outside—making it appear he's half in the room and half out; the unsexy sex scenes; the investigation through GPS; the cold and the gray and the paranoia of it all. For all the problems with story, the feel of it was created by a true artist. Review excerpt:
In the 1970s, and in political thrillers such as “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the left for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in everything. In the 2000s, the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the right for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in nothing. Bushies outed CIA agents. That’s how crazy things got. In “The Ghostwriter,” the CIA, FBI and the faux-Bush administration all work together in super-smart, super-efficient fashion. As soon as perceived enemies appear they are struck down. One ponders the sad history of this past decade, particularly before and after 9/11, and thinks: Right.
8. There are two big reasons why “Black Swan” is on my list. Half an hour after watching it, I still had to remind myself to “breathe” because I'd barely breathed at all during the last half hour of the film. And I'd barely breathed during the last half hour of the film because director Darren Aronofsky, and star Natalie Portman, get you into the head of the main character, Nina, as well as Dostoevsky gets you into the head of Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment.” That's the realm of novels not movies. But Aronofsky is making it the realm of movies. Review excerpt:
No, Nina is hardly innocent. She’s covetous. Early in the film, after Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) trashes her dressing room when she learns she’s been summarily dismissed as prima ballerina of their New York ballet company, Nina sneaks in and sits at the vanity mirror and looks at herself and tries out Beth’s lipstick; then she pockets Beth’s lipstick. It seems a minor thing. Until later in the film when Beth is in the hospital and Nina brings out all the things, including diamond earrings, that Nina stole from her over the years. She’s been coveting the role of prima ballerina for years, and now it’s hers, but she can only see versions of herself ready to take it away again. She assumes the world is like her—we all do—and that’s why she’s paranoid. She knows how awful the desire to take.
7. I still think about it sometimes. What if the creators of “Toy Story 3” had not given us their deus ex machina at the junkyard and allowed the toys, our favorite cinemantic toys, to be pulled into the furnace? What if we had all watched the beloved face of Woody (Tom Hanks) melt away as if he were the Gestapo officer in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? How much stronger the lesson would've been about our wasteful, throwaway culture. Of course: the howls of protest that would've emerged; the billions of dollars that wouldn't have been made. Instead we got our happy ending. Andy's life goes on but the toys are eternal. They will never die. It's a bit of a lie, but an argument can still be made that the “Toy Story” series is still the greatest trilogy Hollywood has ever produced. Each film builds on, and deepens, the previous one. Review excerpt:
Can we watch these movies and not think about ourselves? What the toys go through is essentially what we will all go through. First we’re useful; then we’re not; then we’re taken to a home where we may be abused. We live in a throwaway culture where we’re the last thing thrown away. “Toy Story 3” doesn’t want us to think about this too much, of course, so it gives us its bittersweet ending, where Andy finally, reluctantly, takes his childish things and gives them to Bonnie, shy Bonnie forever hiding behind her mother’s legs, where they will be both safe and useful. In Andy’s reluctance to let go, one sees the reluctance of Pixar itself, which began its empire with Woody and Buzz, and finally has to put away its childish things.
6. There's always a hint of unreality when one leaves a movie theater—it's as if you are waking from a dream—but I felt this tenfold leaving Chris Nolan's “Inception,” a movie which knows all about the connection between movies and dreams. And video games? Our inception team goes several levels into the unconscious of its victim and has to fight its way out of each level before surfacing in our own. Or is it our own? That's not just a question for Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb at the end of the movie, or for us in the audience watching “Inception”; it's the question in our heads as we walk the streets afterwards. Why is this level the real one? I guess because we're stuck here. Until we aren't. Review excerpt:
There are parallels, certainly, between “Inception” and “Shutter Island,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s previous movie that included a crazy wife who kills herself and the protagonist’s subsequent retreat from reality. But I felt “Inception” more. With “Shutter,” the craziness is isolated in one character. With “Inception,” it spreads. Like an idea. The sanest person in the movie, in fact, may be Mal, just before she kills herself. Once you navigate to the lower dream levels, who is to say that our level, the non-dream level, is the final level? Aren’t we told, all of our lives, that there is another, higher level? Or levels? Who’s to say that reality isn’t the dream from which we need to wake up? The greatest philosophers have said just that. Most of us have felt just that. Nolan is actually tapping into the sense of unreality that reality has. Not bad for a summer blockbuster.
5. “A Film Unfinished” ran from August to November in the States, played in 16 theaters at one point, and grossed $320,000. What a shame. Everyone should see this documentary. It's not just about the Nazis, or the Warsaw Ghetto, or the Holocaust; it's about what propaganda truly means. It's about what evil truly is. The Nazis filmed Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in the months before its liquidation in 1943. Why? Forty years later, historians realized they actually staged some of those scenes—creating scenes of comfortable and/or rich Jews. Again: Why? To hide what they were doing before they finished doing it? But hide ... from whom? And why film scenes of poor and starving Jews as well? The answer, when it hit me, hit me with a blow that both clarifies and sickens. Review excerpt (and spoilers):
The juxtaposition between rich Jews and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were documenting a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination. In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda. It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.
4. “The Social Network” sizzles with intelligence, doesn't it? That's how I still think of it three months later. It begins with a tabletop conversation that Quentin Tarantino would slit his wrists to have written, goes into an all-night, intellectual, misogynistic bender, and doesn't stop. The first half is about the creation of a global phenomenon. What fun! The second half is a love triangle between three boys with Sean Parker playing homme fatal. That's less fun. If the first half is about getting ahead in the Internet age, the second half is about who gets left behind. Sorkin's Zuckberg may not be the true Zuckerberg, but Eduardo is us. Review excerpt:
The final scene, where Zuckerberg finds Erica on Facebook and sends her a friend request, then refreshers her page again and again, is a scene for our time. This thing has been sent out into the ether and we need something to come back. We need to be filled, constantly filled, by the online world, because we're social animals, and socializing online is like the thirsty drinking salt water. We keep doing it and it’s only making us thirstier.
3. “True Grit” is a movie without adjectives or adverbs. It just tells its tale. It's not pushing us in any particular direction, it's just allowing us to ride along. The spectacle, if there is spectacle, is there in the main character, Rooster Cogburn, and in the language, most of it culled from Charles Portis' novel. But within its simple structure, its straightforward storytelling, the Coens make you feel things. You feel the violence of fingers chopped off and the heavy weight of hanged men. You feel the bark of trees and the biting cold of winter. You feel the power of a single gunshot. You feel the damp sweat of horses. Mostly, you feel the Old Testament logic to the world. As Mattie says: “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Review excerpt:
Each character surprises. Each has his own code. Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, robbed banks in his youth, then dismisses it with a shrug and an excuse about never robbing a citizen. Lucky Ned, wearing the nastiest set of teeth in movies, and trading spittle-filled invective with Cogburn while pushing a boot into Mattie’s face, later acts the man of honor. Bargains are made—you do this and I’ll do this—but both Cogburn and Chaney go back on their word. Only Ned Pepper keeps his. This is a rough and absurd world, an Old Testament world, where a laugh is followed by the horror of fingers being chopped off; where an anticipated showdown with a killer becomes the absurdist image of a bear toddling through the woods on a horse. (Should the Coens adapt John Irving? Or is he too New Testament for them?)
2. You know how you hear, say, a political speech that moves you, and then the talking heads on cable news get our their knives and forks and cut it all up? That's how I felt during the Q&A for “Restrepo” after a Friday night showing at the Harvard Exit last May. Both directors were there, Timothy Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, and I was in the back row, still mesmerized by the power of this documentary; then the crowd, Seattle International Film Festival folks, got out their knives and forks. They wanted the doc to say what they wanted it to say. Why didn't it critique our Afghanistan policy? Why didn't it attack the Bush administration? They wanted it narrowed and defined. In the Stephen Daedalus sense, they wanted an improper art that is kinetic and didactic, and Hetherington and Junger merely gave them a painful ode to the fragility of the human condition. They gave us a tragic tale that arrests the mind above desire and loathing. They gave us art. Excerpt:
Finally, there’s Cortez, who’s smiling, always smiling in the post-deployment interviews. One wonders: “Why is this dude smiling?” Then you realize there’s a disconnect between the look on his face and what he’s saying. Near the end, he talks about how he can’t sleep.
I’ve been on four or five different types of sleeping pills and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep, and not dream about it, than sleep and see the pictures in my head. It’s...pretty bad.
The smile never leaves his face.
1. Am I too much a Francophile for reasons beyond Marion Cotillard? The French are now 2-for-2 on this site. Olivier Assayas's “L'heure d'ete” topped my list last year (posted Dec. 31st!), while, this year, it's Jacque Audiard's “Un Prophete,” the story of Malik, a young, illiterate Muslim who survives prison, first, as assassin, and then as lacky and go-between for the powerful Corsican mob. It's a kind of Malcolm X story: deliverance, and ultimately redemption, through incarceration. Malik is a Muhammadian figure the way Cool Hand Luke is a Christ figure. He enters as the most marginal of figures and leaves a powerful one. But it's the moments of quiet beauty that ultimately recommend the film. Review excerpt:
The arc of its story is brilliant but it’s the details that stay with me, such as Malik’s first plane trip, sandwiched between two bored commuters, but trying to get a glimpse of the sky out the window. He’s heading to Marseilles for a meeting, at Cesar’s behest, with Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi—one of the many amazing faces in this movie), where, again, he’s the distrusted Arab courier, but where his vision of a deer saves his life. Afterwards the deer meat is washed in the Mediterranean, and Lattrache, eyeing him with new respect, is intrigued by this quiet, honest man who straddles cultures. “Let’s get sucked before you go,” he says, but Malik turns him down. “I’d like to stay on the beach,” he says. He wades out into the water. One senses he’s never seen the sea before. Back in the dark of his prison cell, he takes off his shoe, looks inside, upends it. Sand courses through his fingers.
My Top 10 Movies in a Word Cloud
Next week I'll finally get around to posting my top 10 list. Yes, of 2010 movies. Yes, I know it's February. But since I couldn't be the first to post such a list, I aim to be the last. I'm nothing if not thorough.
In the meantime, here's a word cloud, or Wordle, of the 200 most common words, minus your “the”s and “and”s, from my reviews of my top 10 movies. How many can you name? (Click on the word cloud for a bigger version of same.)
My Top 10 Movies of 2009
This was a tough list to compile. I didn't include a few I thought I would, such as “An Education,” “Red Cliff,” and “Up in the Air,” but I did include a few that will cause some head scratching. That's part of the fun.
These are the movies that had an impact for me that resonated. Some were a joy to watch (“Up”), others were hard to watch (“The Hurt Locker”). Some I still don't fully understand (“A Serious Man”), others I felt deep in my gut (“Anvil! The Story of Anvil”). My no. 1 movie was pleasant enough, then worked on me, both subtly and deeply, ever since. Four of the 10 I've seen twice: “Up,” “Seraphine,” “Avatar” and “The Soloist.”
There are a few contenders I haven't had the chance to check out yet: “Broken Embraces,” “The White Ribbon,” “Crazy Heart.” But the year's at an end and the list needs to get out. Kind of. In E.L. Doctorow's “The Book of Daniel,” Daniel's sister, a '60s radical, upon hearing of Daniel's future plans, tells him, “Just what the world needs, Daniel—another graduate student.” So it is here. Just what the internet needs, Erik—another top 10 list. Hopefully there's something on the list that makes it worthwhile for you.
10. “Inglourious Basterds”: We know the plan won't work. Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Bormann are all at the premiere, and it’s June 1944, and this isn’t the way they go. Hitler and Goebbels kill themselves in their bunker in April 1945. Bormann, it’s assumed, died trying to escape the Red Army in May 1945, while Goering killed himself with cyanide after being sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. We know they won’t die here. At the same time we wonder how Tarantino will handle it. How will he let the Nazis get away but still make it satisfying for us? Here’s how he handles it: He kills them all in June 1944. ... You could argue that Hitler’s merely a prop to him, a movie villain, the way that, say, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a movie villain. He can kill him any way he wants. And this is the way he wants. This is the way that suits his story rather than history. Or you could go deeper. The greatest villain of the 20th century escaped our clutches. Yes, he took the coward’s way out in that bunker but we didn’t begin to get our revenge for all of the death and destruction he caused. The movies have recreated that moment, that horribly uncinematic moment in the bunker, time and time again, but they’ve always played by Hitler’s rules. They always gave him the end he chose. Until Tarantino. Who machine guns his face into oblivion in June 1944. Full review here.
9. “The Informant!”: As the film opens, there’s a virus eating both the lysine in the ADM plants and the profits that the conglomerate demands, and Whitacre’s getting the blame from the son of the boss for not solving the problem. It’s amusing but unfair—in the way that sons-of-bosses are always amusing but unfair. Then Whitacre gets a call from a Japanese colleague who says an ADM mole is responsible for the virus and he’ll reveal the name for $10 million. Rather than pay off, the higher-ups at ADM bring in the FBI, who tap Whitacre’s personal line to find out more. This bothers Whitacre—first a little, then a lot—and with his wife’s prodding he reveals to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) that ADM and the Japanese are involved in price-fixing the international lysine market. Which is how Whitacre turns informant. “Mark, why are you doing this?“ Shepard asks at one point. “Because things are going on that I don’t approve of,” he says. “They’re making me lie to people.” Hold that thought. Full review here.
8. ”The Soloist“: ”The Soloist“ comes close to being a remarkable film. Near the middle there's a scene that, without trying too hard, feels like it's integrating all of its parts. Weston (Catherine Keener) is in her Los Angeles Times office as a manager, off screen, talking up the company’s “very good exit package,” lets an employee go. Out her window she sees Lopez (Downey, Jr.) helping push Nathaniel’s shopping cart up a hill. They’re heading to the L.A. Symphony to listen to a rehearsal, but she doesn’t know that, she only knows what she sees. And she smiles this wistful smile. There’s great balance here: the comedy outside and the tragedy within; one man helping another while a company, part of a dying industry, lets another employee go. It doesn’t draw too fine a point—as I fear I might be doing—it just feels part of this big shifting pattern we all create. It’s worthy of Keener’s beautiful, wistful smile. Full review here.
7. ”The Hurt Locker“: In “The Deer Hunter” there’s that great transition where one moment our boys are partying in rural Pennsylvania and the next moment they’re in a deadly firefight in Vietnam. Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow do the opposite here. There’s two days left, James has just met his match with a human IED (although he survives), and our boys are in their HUMVEE getting pelted with rocks from Iraqi children. The next second James is standing in an American grocery store, frozen food aisle, muzak in the background. He’s wearing civilian clothes and looks ordinary. The grocery store, particularly compared to the bright heat of Iraq, feels cold, devoid of life, awful. It feels like a dream but not a pleasant one. You feel the cultural dissonance James must feel, the dislocation, the difference between that and this. And as awful as that was, this feels worse. The fluorescent lights are not real lights, the music is not real music, the food is not real food. Everything is false. It’s dangerous to see Sgt. James as more than just Sgt. James but I can’t help it. Is he representative? Does he represent us? In other words, is our incessant foreign adventurism the result, in part, of having a home life, and a home culture, that feels like a lie? American culture isn’t what we’re fighting for; it’s what we’re running from. Full review here.
6. ”A Serious Man“: Larry Gopnik is the kind of man who timidly obsesses over small details—such as the property line with the Brandts, his stoic, hunting-happy Minnesota neighbors—and misses the big picture. Not only is his wife leaving him but his kids have left him. His son, Danny, is a mess of sixties contradictions: he has that classic Beatles haircut (redhaired version), smokes pot, listens to Jefferson Airplane, but only cares to talk with his father when the reception for “F Troop,” the lamest of ‘60s sitcoms, comes in fuzzy. His daughter, Sarah, only talks to her father to complain about Uncle Arthur, Larry’s brother, hogging the bathroom to drain the cyst in his neck. That’s at home. At work he’s being considered for tenure but letters arrive denigrating him. Then a Korean man accuses Larry of 1) defamation, because Larry accused his son of a bribe, and pleading 2) cultural differences, because Larry didn’t accept the bribe. Larry’s helpless before this kind of illogic. He can’t extricate himself from it. Life has the quality of a nightmare: Everything’s repetitive—Sy keeps hugging him, the Brandts keep playing catch, Arthur keeps draining his cyst—and everything’s unknowable. Dream sequences in other films are usually obvious but in the Coens’ films they blend almost seamlessly with life, so we in the audience are in the position of the dreamer: We don’t know what’s dream until it’s over. And even then. By the pool last night—did that happen? Full review here.
5. ”Anvil! The Story of Anvil“: They miss a train. They play dives for peanuts. Their fans are fervent but few. Late to one gig in the Czech Republic, they’re told the place is “jam fucking packed” but they get there and rock out before fewer than 10 fans; then the club owner refuses to pay them. It’s here we see the first of several eruptions from Lips, who, spittle flying, quickly loses his half-smile and nearly goes off on the dude. Their next gig should be a heavy-metal highlight — a rock show in Transyl-fucking-vania, with a 10,000-seat capacity — and as they make their way to the stage through narrow hallways, one bandmember, an obvious “Spinal Tap” fan, shouts “Hello, Cleveland!” Unlike Spinal Tap, Anvil finds its way to the stage. The crowd doesn’t. Only 174 show up. Cut to: Toronto in winter. Full review here.
4. ”Avatar“: James Cameron has done an amazing, ballsy thing with ”Avatar.“ Yes, he imagines an entire world and creates it in meticulous detail. Yes, he sends his main character on a hero’s journey through this world. But within this framework, this age-old story, he critiques the worst aspects of our own culture. “When people are sitting on something you want, you make them your enemy,” Jake says near the end, summing up the sad history of the human race. It’s not an abstract or ancient history, either. It’s current. The villains in “Avatar” use the language of this decade: “Shock and awe”; “fighting terror with terror”; “balance sheets.” They are us. “Dances with Wolves” was set in an historical timeframe, more than 100 years earlier, in which everyone knew the Native Americans would fight and lose. Not here. Here, in this future setting, the humans not only lose but they’re sent back to Earth—to their dying planet that has no green on it. They lose because God literally isn’t on their side. Full review here.
3. ”Seraphine“: By the time most of us sit down to watch “Seraphine,” we know a few basics about her story—she’s a painter who lived in France at the turn of the last century—but this may trump all: She’s important enough that 100 years later we’re watching a film about her. The mere fact of the film, in other words, acts as a kind of redemption for her and a kind of guide for us. We see her scraping by to paint at night but we know, by virtue of the film, that she succeeds. We know, when the boarding-house owner demands to see her work and then dismisses it because the apples don’t look like apples (“They could be plums,” she says), that the woman is a philistine. We know, when dinner-party guests chuckle knowingly about how Seraphine left the convent because she felt God “called her” to paint, that they’re bourgeoisie with lousy bourgeois taste. The thrill we get, then, is as old as the thrill we get from the Gospels: These people don’t know who’s in their midst. They don’t know how special she is. It’s not a stretch to say we wait for her recognition as surely as we wait for our own. Full review here.
2. ”Up“: Pixar movies focus on cultural moments rather than pop-cultural moments: that early 1960s period when astronauts replaced cowboys as heroes for boys everywhere; the difference, and similarities, between 20th-century “adventurers” and 21st-century “wilderness explorers.” Pixar doesn’t need to point to a pop-cultural phenomenon to get laughs. Put it this way: In “Up,” there’s a dog, a talking dog named Dug, and he’s more real than most live-action dogs on screen. What makes him funny isn’t that he’s not like a dog—that he stands on his hind legs and sings a rap song, for example, as he might in other animated features—but that he’s exactly like a dog. Pixar finds, intrinsically within the object, its humor. And drama. ... At Paradise Falls, Carl, burdened by his house, chooses the house, and what it represents, over Kevin, and Dug, and even Russell, and what they represent. Then he sits in it, alone, his longstanding dream finally realized, and he looks through Ellie’s old adventure book, and the unfulfilled promise of STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. But the pages beyond aren’t blank; he’s shocked to find they’re filled with the life he and Ellie lived together. This fact recalls something Russell said earlier about his father: “I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember most.” That’s what Ellie filled her pages with: the boring, everyday stuff we discount but that means the most. On the last page Ellie includes a note to Carl: “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one!” And as he does, as her words inspire him to throw out most of the stuff in his house to get it aloft again, to get back into the adventure, I sat there, a 46-year-old, tearing up. Full review here.
1. ”L'Heure d'ete“ (”Summer Hours“): The three grown-up siblings have familiarity with, and distance from, one other. They assume they know each other but there’s also this quiet curiosity. I love you, but who are you again? Or now? The rest of the movie is disillusion of the cottage and its precious artifacts. At one point, Eloise, the housekeeper, returns for a visit and sees strangers—art dealers, reps from the Musee d’Orsay—removing this painting, taking that exquisite desk. They’re basically messing up the place she cleaned up for decades. It’s a melancholy sight. ”L’heure d’ete" is suffused with sadness but not nostalgia. Life expands, life contracts, life goes on. Director Olivier Assayas could’ve ended the film at the Musee d’Orsay, with the family's desk on display, looking “caged,” according to Frederic, but chose, instead, a more ambiguous end. He takes us back to the cottage house, where Frederic’s kids throw a huge, loud summer party. At first one is appalled that Helene’s place has been taken over in this fashion. But is this better? It’s vibrant. It’s life. The final shot is of the eldest daughter and her boyfriend, young and unburdened, running away from the camera and toward whatever it is they’ll create, and collect, and leave behind. Full review here.
Jackie Chan's Top 10 Stunts
Everyone who knows me knows I love me some Jackie Chan and this guy on YouTube does a nice job with his personal take on Jackie's Top 10 Stunts. I've never written a top 10 list without someone, somewhere (and usually many people, in many places) telling me what I missed, or, in the parlance, “forgot”, as in, “You forgot The Banana Splits!” So I feel a little abashed admitting I didn't think much of his No. 1, which always seemed like a crazy, rather than cool, stunt. I probably would've put the helicopter ride around Kuala Lumpur higher, too. Would that be my No. 1? Maybe. But it's a fun video. Nice commentary, too. Check it out.
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