Thursday, January 28, 2010

Top 10: 1999

1. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick)
2. Magnolia (Anderson)
3. American Beauty (Mendes)
4. Being John Malkovich (Jonze)
5. The Straight Story (Lynch)
6. Fight Club (Fincher)
7. The Iron Giant (Bird)
8. Election (Payne)
9. Bringing Out the Dead (Scorsese)
10. Boys Don't Cry (Peirce)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I think, really, the Jolly Roger is the appropriate course of action.

In the past three years, Joel and Ethan Coen have given us three completely unpredictable movies, each drastically different from the last. The existentalist thriller No Country For Old Men was followed by the misanthropic slapstick of Burn After Reading, the latter as much an absurdist companion to the former as The Big Lebowski is to Fargo. Both films (along with their 2004 misfire The Ladykillers) suggested that the Coens had adapted a more cynical worldview; it's hard to imagine the Coens of today directing the scene in Raising Arizona where Ed breaks up with Hi without ironic Kubrickian distance. If their newest movie, A Serious Man, combines the comic and somber elements of their previous two films, it's also, surprisingly, their most personal movie in years. Set in Minnesota (their home state) in 1970 (when the Coens were teens), A Serious Man is at once their bleakest and most sincere film yet.

A prologue relates a Jewish folktale about a dybbuk, a roaming demon who takes the form of a dead person, before cutting to 1970 and 13-year-old Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) listening to Jefferson Airplane through an earbud in his Hebrew School class. It is Danny's dad Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) for whom the truth is found to be lies; a math professor and a strictly rational man who admits he doesn't really understand Schrodinger's cat, Larry's world is rocked when his wife (Sari Lennick) announces that she is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a widower regarded in the community as a "serious man." Sy's attempts to console Larry through his own betrayal, as well as false allegations from a student (David Kang) and Larry's brother, who stays on Larry's couch and alternates his time between draining a cyst and working on an all-encompassing probability model called The Mentaculous, as well as other assorted peripheral lunacies, have spun Larry into an existential crisis. We're encouraged to both laugh at Larry's spiralling misfortune and recognize it as our own; it's telling that the Coens admitted Larry was partly inspired by their father, even as they also confess they loved coming up with new ways to torture Larry.

Larry's plight has been frequently compared by critics to Job, although the Coens have pointed out that it's Larry's rational assumptions, rather than his faith, that are being challenged. But there's no question that Larry's story is deeply rooted in Jewish philosophy and humor; if Barton Fink is a horror movie about anti-Semitism, A Serious Man is the Coens' most reflective look at their religion. When Larry asks two rabbis for spiritual counsel, the first pontificates about the wonder of parking lots while the second shares a long parable that only serves to further confuse Larry; the rabbis are the latet in a long line of authority figures sitting behind big desks that the Coens regard warily. At the same time, they're among our most morally serious filmmakers - their films demonstrate over and over that crime doesn't pay. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out, the Coens have a pragmatic approach to morality - to do good brings "freedom from fear of loneliness and the nagging suspicion your existence is meaningless" (or, as a rabbi in the film puts it, "A sign from Hashem? Don't know. Helping others? Couldn't hurt"). But Larry's fate doesn't seem connected to his actions. He faces constant challenges to his assumptions about the way the world works, from the sexy neighbor (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes nude and asks Larry if he enjoys "the new freedoms" to the Columbia House representative who insists Larry purchased Santana's Abraxas (Stuhlbarg is hilarious as a man in a constant state of freefall). More so even than No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man wrestles with the seeming arbitrariness of existence - it's equal parts hilarious and deeply unsettling.

As with most of the Coens' films, A Serious Man recreates an extremely specific time and place in meticulous detail. Here, Minnesota in 1970 is populated by stage and character actors we have few, if any, prior associations with; the characters feel as if they're born directly from the Coens' memories of their adolescence. Melamed is a particular standout, his sonorous tones the perfect voice for a well-respected man who urges others to do the right thing even as the "right thing" frequently lines up with his own self-interest. If Sy Ableman embodies the contradictions of early-70s suburbia - equal parts amoral and beholden to tradition - they Danny points towards an uncertain future. Presumably the Coens' stand-in, Danny is inarticulate and constantly stoned, his small-scale problems upstaged, finally, by a growing awareness of the chaotic world around him. What finally connects A Serious Man to the previous two films is an ending that refuses to wrap up the inexplicable, and a wary respect for things that cannot be dreamt up in our philosophy.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Top 10: 1989

1. Do the Right Thing (Lee)
2. Heathers (Lehmann)
3. Say Anything (Crowe)
4. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Greenaway)
5. Batman (Burton)
6. Casualties of War (DePalma)
7. The 'Burbs (Dante)
8. Sex, lies and videotape (Soderbergh)
9. Drugstore Cowboy (Van Sant)
10. Mystery Train (Jarmusch)

Friday, January 08, 2010

Top 10: 1979

1. Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
2. Alien (Scott)
3. Nosferatu (Herzog)
4. All That Jazz (Fosse)
5. Manhattan (Allen)
6. Stalker (Tarkovsky)
7. Being There (Ashby)
8. Tess (Polanski)
9. The Muppet Movie (Frawley)
10. Rock 'n' Roll High School (Arkush)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Professor was hot.

So says one of the bored high schoolers of Dazed and Confused in reference to the island-bound administrator of SLIFR's Thanksgiving/Christmas movie quiz, which I'm turning in just a bit before MLK day. Four years out of college and I'm still terrible with due dates. If you haven't already, check out the quiz and the rest of Dennis' always-excellent blog.

1)Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.

Miller’s Crossing

2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)

Alien, mostly because I’ve missed several opportunities to see it on the big screen.

3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)

Not sure how to choose between nations, except to say that I feel a stronger personal affinity with the New Wave filmmakers than Kurosawa and Ozu.

4) Favorite moment/line from a western.

Julie Christie drifting into an opium haze at the end of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?

Photography aside, I believe that a film, like music, should ideally be the result of a collaboration between various elements for a cumulative emotional effect.

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).

I skipped Birth during its theatrical release due to the mostly dismissive reviews, which now seem like a puerile and reductive response to such a complex and delicate film.

7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.

I was a huge Kevin Spacey fan during his ‘90’s hot streak, from Glengarry Glen Ross to American Beauty; he’s only made one movie since that I really liked. I still hope he’ll turn it around, though.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?


9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)

I like/love them all to some degree; I guess Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is my “least” favorite, though mixed with the erratic and silly bits are some of Lynch’s best moments.

10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

A tie, but if I have to choose, Gordon Willis.

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.

The Beguiled

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?

On Blu-ray, Inglourious Basterds – even better the second time. In theaters, The Fantastic Mr. Fox – a little slight after The Darjeeling Limited, but undeniably charming.

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

Easily Lawrence of Arabia.

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?

McLovin’. What, no Screech?

15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.

Kate Winslet can make a turdburger like The Reader compelling.

16) Fight Club -- yes or no?

It doesn’t seem as deep as it did when I was 16, but yes.

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?

Olivia De Havilland

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.

Harry Lime’s introduction in The Third Man

19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.

The only scene that comes to mind right now is the little boy’s skull getting crushed (obviously a melon) in The Toxic Avenger.

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)

I was paid $75 to work on The Game Plan and it was still painful to sit through.

21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?


22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.
I tend to not like documentaries that people “should” see, especially if they end with a list of things you should do. But if you haven’t seen Gates of Heaven, you should.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.

25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when people who know I’m into movies treat me like a walking IMDb, quizzing me on release years and who directed what. I usually shrug it off, but I did get pretty tired of being known as “Kevin Bacon guy” in high school.
26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)

Geraldine Fitzgerald

27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?
When I was a little kid, my mom looked uncannily like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens – and honestly, if my mom were in Ripley’s situation, I have no doubt she’d get the job done.

28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?

I’d avoided both Salo and Cannibal Holocaust until about a year ago. The former was not quite what I expected, the latter was just what I expected.

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.

Thank you for reminding me that it’s about time for my annual winter double feature of The Shining and The Thing.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?Jeffrey Jones. Who else could believably play Emperor Joseph, Ed Rooney and the Dark Overlord? I hope we see more of him again soon (quoth the Mattress Man – “You think you can be a pervert and not pay for it?”)

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).

Walter and The Dude. One’s a neocon, the other’s an aging radical, but they put aside their differences for bowling and the things that really matter.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.

Rio Bravo

33) Favorite movie car chase.

It’s an obvious answer, but every time I watch The French Connection, I’m convinced someone is really going to get hurt this time.

34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins)

In the Company of Women

35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?

Barbara Feldon

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.

House of Wax

37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)

My first thought, obviously, was Michael Bay, but I sort of wouldn’t want to erase The Rock. So let’s go with Gary Marshall.

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.

Barry Lyndon. It was the one Kubrick film that was too misanthropic for me, but when I had to watch it again for an assignment, I realized that it does indeed have a heart.

39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)

Max Ophuls

40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?

The Deltas. And these days I’m starting to look like D-Day.

41) Your favorite movie cliché.

The spy or assassin or Chigurh walking calmly away from a car or building as it suddenly blows up.

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)

Vincente Minelli

43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.

As much as I love A Christmas Story, wouldn’t it be great if another channel ran 24 hours of Black Christmas as counterprogramming every year?

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.

The moment in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when MacMurphy looks towards the open window and his chance for escape, then wordlessly decides to finish what he’s started.

45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)

Apologies to all my friends and loved ones who love this movie, but I fucking hate The Boondock Saints.

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?

Caroline Munro

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)

I was going to say Sam Peckinpah, but a quick Google image search reminded me that he did not, in fact, wear an eye patch. It feels right, though, doesn’t it?

48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)


49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?

The “Cat People” scene in Inglourious Basterds – for reasons far too abstract to explain here, it will always feel like 2009 to me.

50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
George Kennedy