Friday, January 27, 2012

Top 10: 2001

1. Mulholland Drive (Lynch)
2. Y tu mamá también (Cuaron)
3. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Mitchell)
4. A.I. (Spielberg)
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson)
6. Moulin Rouge (Luhrmann)
7. Amélie (Jeunet)
8. Spirited Away (Miyazaki)
9. Gosford Park (Altman)
10. Ghost World (Zwigoff)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Top 10: 1991

1. My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant)
2. The Silence of the Lambs (Demme)
3. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Cameron)
4. Barton Fink (Coen)
5. JFK (Stone)
6. Cape Fear (Scorsese)
7. Naked Lunch (Cronenberg)
8. Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale, Wise)
9. The Fisher King (Gilliam)
10. Point Break (Bigelow)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Recommended Island Viewing

For his final Friday Night Seitz slideshow at Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz answered the age-old question, "What movies would you want to have with you if you were shipwrecked on a desert island." Matt adds, of course, that "It is assumed that you’ll have an indestructible DVD player with a solar-recharging power source" and allows for ten feature films, one short and a single season of a TV series. Matt's challenge was taken up by others, including Jim Emerson and Damian Arlyn; their cumulative desert island library includes films by directors ranging from Martin Scorsese to Buster Keaton to the Coen brothers to Don Bluth.

My choices for desert island viewing differ from my all-time top 10 in that I think my tastes would run a bit lighter due to circumstance. While I'm generally drawn to "dark, cerebral movies" (as I believe Netflix has characterized my tastes) and that's certainly reflected in part on this list, if I was limited to the same 12 viewing options forever, I'd have a greater need for movies to lighten my spirits and help me stay connected to humanity. It's kind of like Will Smith watching Shrek every day in I Am Legend to remind him of the way the world was, except I'm a much bigger snob than Will Smith. And rewatchability is very important, of course. I thought about skipping movies that Matt, Jim or Damian had already chosen, but when you force movie geeks to limit themselves to twelve titles for the rest of their lives, I guess some overlap is inevitable.

All That Jazz - Bob Fosse's cinematic self-portrait is exhilarating in a way that very few films are. It's an incredibly entertaining examination of how an excessive dedication to one's craft gives one's life meaning even as it tears one apart. Roy Scheider was never better than as Fosse's surrogate, Joe Gideon, a chain-smoking, pill-popping, womanizing director juggling a Broadway musical, a feature film, current and past lovers, his relationship with his daughter and an impending heart attack, among other things. His hallucinatory trip through his own life and impending death is frighteningly insightful, often hilarious and punctuated with some of Fosse's best choreography, culminating in a glittery, show-stopping eulogy that can only be described as fabulous. I think it's impossible to get tired of this movie.

Boogie Nights - While There Will Be Blood is my favorite P.T. Anderson movie by a hair, Quentin Tarantino was right when he characterized Boogie Nights as an "exhuberant" film (as opposed to There Will Be Blood's formalism). It's one of the movies where, every time I watch it, I can't stop debating with myself whether my favorite scene is the current one, or the one before it, or the next one. Every character is my favorite character. For it's two-and-a-half hours, Boogie Nights radiates with the joy of movies and filmmaking. No matter how crappy I'm feeling, it never fails to bring a smile to my face.

E.T. - One of the very first movies I really loved, and the first one that got me thinking about what it means to make a movie. E.T.'s stock in the collective imagination seems to have fallen a bit since I was a kid - most of the time when I mention it to people my age, they dismiss it as a movie that frightened them when they were kids. But through my childhood, it meant more to me than Star Wars or any of the other staples of my youth. Even now, I can't think too hard about certain images or moments or even John Williams' score (his best) without getting a bit misty. I'd want it on the island not for nostalgic reasons but because it remains the most clear-eyed and insightful movie about growing up. And I imagine it'd be wonderful to revisit over and over under a canopy of stars.

Fargo - The Coens' best movie is the best example of their deadpan comic genius and ability to mine laughter and genuine pathos from flawed, sometimes banal people in desperate situations. It's also filled with a fondness for their home state that pokes a lot of fun at Minnesotans' earnestness while still demonstrating real affection. Very pregnant sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is probably my favorite cinematic hero - she's true to herself, good to her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), unflappable while investigating a brutal double homicide and driven by an unshakeable sense of right and wrong. Her monologue to one of the kidnappers at the film's end ("There's more to live than a little money, ya know. Don't you know that?") and the coda with Marge and Norm in bed, talking about his three-cent mallard stamp, never fail to move me. Plus, it would be nice, on the island, to be reminded of snow.

Goodfellas - Scorsese's most entertaining movie. If I'm channel surfing and Goodfellas is on, even with the DVD about five feet away from the TV, it's almost impossible to stop watching. It doesn't have the kind of lightness of being that a lot of my choices have - it's a movie about very likeable assholes doing terrible things and learning nothing in the process. As such, it's one of the greatest dark comedies of all time, not to mention Scorsese - at a point in his career when he had a lot to prove - employing just about every cinematic trick at his disposal to tell this story and clearly having a blast doing it. Goodfellas is one of those movies that always reminds me what film is capable of. And seeing as I'll be on the island for a very long time, that gives me whole days to examine just the Copacabana tracking shot. Or the Billy Batts sequence. Or the "Layla" scene. Or the commercial for Morrie's Wigs...

Harold and Maude - One of those rare movies that, in the gentlest way possible, always reminds me how much of everyday life is bullshit and what really matters. Hal Ashby's laid-back stoner vibe is deceptive; it's an unpretentious movie, unafraid to be silly, but also very deep and true. Plus, a little Cat Stevens makes every day worth living.

Manhattan - This has long been my favorite Woody Allen movie, but it really came into focus when I was watching the American Masters documentary on Allen, thanks to Mariel Hemingway calling Allen a "mush." It's very true - as much as Allen's work is preoccupied with death, the non-existence of God and other sources of anxiety and existential despair, they're just as much a celebration of human relationships. Sure, they often end in heartbreak or betrayal, and Manhattan is unsparing in underlining the ways that people can be selfish and casually cruel, or how - as Allen laments in Annie Hall - love fades. But it's also a deeply romantic film, in love with the ways that people can lend each others' lives meaning, how a city is alive with millions of people living their own movies, and how a perfect, holy moment is always possible when you least expect it.

Nashville - Like Boogie Nights, a movie overflowing with potential favorite scenes and characters. It's a cynical film, but never the sort of empty, defeatist cynicism that tends to turn me off immediately; Pauline Kael put it best when she said that Altman "loves us too much to flatter us." I revisit it about once a year, and I've found that whatever is going on in my life at the time, it speaks to me right where I'm at. And you don't have to be a fan of country music to appreciate how Altman discovers poetry in the intersection of our popular culture, politics, ideals and delusions. No movie feels more like America to me than Nashville; I imagine that returning to it on the island would feel like visiting home.

The Shining - My girlfriend believes that, though I call Blue Velvet my favorite movie, my true favorite is The Shining, which I apparently talk about ten times as much. It's certainly the movie I've seen the most times and return to constantly; I've been working through its multiple mysteries, layers and ambiguities for over 20 years, and each time I revisit it, the film reveals a new shade of meaning. If someone asked me to name a perfect film, The Shining would be my answer; if I could only take one movie to the island, it would be my choice and I would happily watch it every night. Plus, I think it would be good to have a movie to watch that is almost entirely composed of interiors; over time, I would probably grow jealous of Jack Torrance and his cabin fever.

Synecdoche, New York - A movie that reminds us that, no matter how bad things get, they can always (and, eventually, will) get worse. While sometimes I need comfort food on a bad day like everyone else, a movie like Synecdoche, New York provides a different kind of therapy. It's about everything we fear and regret - failed ambitions, broken relationships, loneliness, the suspicion that everything is meaningless and, above all, death. And it confronts our darkest thoughts with eyes wide open, with wit and honesty and a stunning amount of empathy, reminding more strongly than any movie I've seen that we're all in this together. It's a movie filled with misery, and it never fails to make me feel better. No matter how dark things get on that island, I can always count on Synecdoche, New York to help me pull myself together.

The short film I would bring to the island is The Wrong Trousers. The toy train chase between Wallace and Gromit and the villainous, silent penguin left the nine-year-old me breathless with laughter, and it hasn't lost any of its charm.

Originally I was thinking I would bring a season of Lost, then decided I might not be in the mood as I'd be stuck on a frigging island. So I'll go with season one of Twin Peaks. I'll have the rest of my life to explore the mysteries of Bob, the man from another planet and all the other strange and mysterious elements that, thanks to David Lynch, seem completely effortless. And even if/when I tired of the show as a puzzle, I'd always have Agent Cooper, Sheriff Truman, Audrey Horne, the Log Lady and all the other residents of Twin Peaks to keep me company.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Top 10: 1981

1. Blow Out (De Palma)
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg)
3. An American Werewolf in London (Landis)
4. The Road Warrior (Miller)
5. Thief (Mann)
6. Modern Romance (Brooks)
7. The Evil Dead (Raimi)
8. Excalibur (Boorman)
9. Pennies From Heaven (Ross)
10. Escape From New York (Carpenter)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Top 10: 1971

Update, 1/9/12: I can't believe I forgot Two-Lane Blacktop!

1. A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick)
2. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
3. Harold and Maude (Ashby)
4. Macbeth (Polanski)
5. Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman)
6.The Devils (Russell)
7. Straw Dogs (Peckinpah)
8. The French Connection (Friedkin)
9. Carnal Knowledge (Nichols)
10. Two English Girls (Truffaut)

Hey kid, you want a toothpick?

While James Sallis' novel Drive provides us with a backstory for its protagonist - a stuntman by day and getaway driver by night who is known only as "the Driver" - Hossein Amini's adaptation for Nicolas Winding Refn's film version of Drive gives us few details about who the Driver is. We know as much as his boss, body shop owner Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who explains that the Driver (Ryan Gosling) showed up at his garage a few years back and asked for a job. Stoic and elusive, the Driver never puts his experiences or motivations into words - he's a character defined entirely by what he does, rather than where he's been. What he does is drive, exceptionally well; in the opening sequence, we watch him on an assignment as a getaway driver, calm and focused as he eludes police cars and helicopters with astounding timing. The sequence is shot and edited with the same expert precision, culminating in a final reveal - deftly teased from the opening shot - that recalls De Palma at his best in the devilish pleasure Refn takes from waiting until the last possible moment to let us in on the joke. My pleasure at Refn's slight-of-hand never flagged during the following ninety minutes; Drive is, without a doubt, the best time I had at the movies last year.

Taking place on the lower rungs of the film industry and the margins of L.A.'s criminal underworld, Drive takes place in the hard, glossy urban terrain of Michael Mann, populated by assorted lowlifes who speak in the terse, clipped language of Walter Hill. This is film noir passed through the great contemporary American action filmmakers and taken to its logical endpoin. It's too emotionally direct to comfortably label "postmodern," but there is the sense, as the Driver and Shannon become involved with gangsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) - first as partner's in Shannon's plan to make the Driver a stock car racer, then as adversaries after a robbery gone wrong - of a way of life and cinema, of defining the good guys and bad guys, giving way to a murkier future. Refn, whose earlier film Bronson transformed the world of British prisons and asylums into a Theatre of the Absurd scored by the Pet Shop Boys, creates a world whose pop surfaces portray in bold strokes both the end of an era in pulp fiction and the immortality of the archetypal hero's journey.

Refn also feminizes the action film in surprising ways, from the glossy pink opening titles to the synthpop-heavy soundtrack. Drive reminds of Carol Clover's bisexual aesthetic, balancing a masculine, fetishistic reverence for machines and process with swooning romantic interludes. It's the Driver's silent affection for next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benecio (Kaden Leos) that sets the film's plot into motion - when Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Issac) is released from prison and finds himself quickly in hot water, the Driver helps him in order to help his wife and son. Mulligan is luminous in the film; there's a beautiful moment, as Desire's "Under Your Spell" plays on the soundtrack, when we watch Irene and the Driver silently yearn for each other on opposite sides of the wall dividing their apartments. Drive is as effective as it is because Refn is as invested in these quiet emotional moments as he is in the violent setpieces.

At first, I thought perhaps the relationship between the Driver and Irene was vaguely defined; later, I realized that an impromptu drive through the Los Angeles River is the closest thing to intimacy that the Driver is probably capable of. This is a character who is almost entirely motivated by a sense of romantic chivalry to the woman he loves; he's also a possible sociopath who hits another woman to find out what she knows and is capable of brutal assault and even murder without ever losing his cool. Gosling - who I used to find annoyingly mannered but who has, since Blue Valentine, has found the wit to match his obvious talent - does an excellent job of wordlessly conveying the Driver's internal extremes. The film's centerpiece, in this light, is a scene set in an elevator where an ecstatic emotional climax takes a jarring left turn into a violent confrontation that is a much more disturbing form of release. We're never sure if the Driver enjoys taking out the bad guys because he's sworn to protect Irene and Benecio, or if his self-appointed role as a knight in a Chevy Impala is a pretense for him to get off on beating the shit out of people. Of course, we could similarly question the motives of almost every action hero since Odysseus.

The entire movie strikes a similar balance, its approach to cinematic violence at once exhilarating and sobering. Its violence movies come in brief, controlled bursts, reminiscent of the climax of Sanjuro, that have a greater impact for their relative restraint. While Tom Hardy's Charles Bronson relished his role as an ass-kicking maniac in that film, here the characters are reluctant to kill each other for our entertainment. Even Bernie, the film's villain, assumes that role with great reluctance - he'd rather see the Driver race and is legitimately disappointed that his criminal partners have screwed that plan up. Brooks is a brilliant choice for Bernie; thanks to his warmth and our familiarity with his screen persona, we like Bernie and want to trust him, and can believe that he'd rather not hurt anyone. So when Brooks' acerbic wit gives way to cold, merciless self-preservation, he's one of the most frightening and memorable bad guys in recent memory. A moment when Bernie whispers reassurances to his dying victim that "It's all over now, there's no more pain" lingers in the memory more strongly than movies with ten times the body count. Drive is heavy with the sense of things we can't return to, and also alive with cinema's capacity for rebirth; when Gosling finally assumes the heroic status that Refn has granted him, with College's "A Real Hero" blasting on the soundtrack, Drive achieves pop transcendence. It's one for the ages.