Monday, January 31, 2011

Top 10: 2000

1. Almost Famous (Crowe)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong)
3. American Psycho (Harron)
4. Wonder Boys (Hanson)
5. Traffic (Soderbergh)
6. The Virgin Suicides (Coppola)
7. Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier)
8. Memento (Nolan)
9. High Fidelity (Frears)
10. Best in Show (Guest)

Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!

This year's roster of Best Director nominees includes three of the "Rebels on the Backlot," the filmmakers profiled in Sharon Waxman's book of the same name who emerged in the past 20 years and helped blur the line between independent and studio filmmaking. It's exciting to see the mavericks of my formative years of movie love - filmmakers like David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky - celebrated by mainstream Hollywood for making films that speak to wide audiences even as they retain their directors' distinctive voices. Among them is David O. Russell, the director of The Fighter, who has bounced back from the never-completed comedy Nailed to make a boxing movie that, in a subgenre riddled with cliches, is surprisingly affecting. Equal parts Rocky and Truffaut, with a pitch-perfect sense of character and location, The Fighter is the rare crowd-pleasing sports movie that never talks down to its audience.

Based on the true story of Mickey Ward, a junior welterweight from Lowell, Massachusetts, The Fighter begins with Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) struggling in the ring and stuck in the shadow of his half-brother and sparring partner, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). A former pro welterweight who became addicted to crack, Dicky’s old glories, along with his domineering mother Alice’s (Melissa Leo) mismanagement of his career, lead to Ward’s retreat from boxing. As Mickey is inspired by new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) to take control of his life in and out of the ring, The Fighter escapes familiar territory largely thanks to the film’s excellent use of Lowell as a location. Russell blends strong character work with a carefully observed portrait of the film’s working-class neighborhoods; the verisimilitude goes so far as to have Ward’s real-life trainer Mickey O’Keefe play himself. The film follows these characters and their city with a close-up, character driven visual style (influenced by the French New Wave) that brings to mind the handheld approach of The Wrestler (Aronofsky was originally going to direct The Fighter and retains an executive producer credit). What separates The Fighter from The Wrestler and most other sports movies is the light comic touch Russell brings to the material, presenting Dicky and the rest of Mickey’s family with a lightness that avoids the story’s potential for melodrama and shows a profound sense of respect for Mickey, his family and his hometown.

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Mickey and Dicky, and both actors are terrific. Interesting that it took playing a crackhead for Bale to lighten up; he captures the likeable, slightly na├»ve charm of the real Dicky. Wahlberg (who shepherded Ward’s story to the screen) hasn’t received as much praise as Bale, but he’s just as good as the slightly introverted Mickey; surrounded by bigger, louder characters, he demonstrates why listening is the most important tool an actor has. It would be clear to any director that the brothers’ relationship drives the film; what Russell brings to The Fighter that other directors might overlook is the importance the women in Mickey’s life. Alice at first seems monstrous, but Leo’s performance gradually reveals the great love she has for her sons, even if she puts it in the wrong places (Jack McGee is also great, and hilarious, as Mickey's henpecked dad). The veritable Greek chorus of Mickey’s many sisters are hilarious and completely believable. And Amy Adams is great as Charlene - turns out she’s as good at playing earthy and self-reliant as she is at playing princesses, and the scenes between her and Wahlberg are surprisingly sexy. It’s the three-dimensional portrait of Mickey’s complicated family that makes The Fighter work; when the inevitable climatic fight arrives, the victory belongs to the whole family. Russell has long specialized in examinations of dysfunctional families; it’s nice to see the director arriving at an honest, fully earned portrait of a family coming together.

Having started making movies in the 1980s, the Coen brothers are a sort of spiritual link between the maverick directors of the ‘70s and the new bunch. They’ve also found themselves being accepted into the mainstream in recent years; their newest film, True Grit, is their first unqualified blockbuster (as well as the first smash hit western in decades). Based on the Charles Portis novel previously adapted into the movie that won John Wayne the Oscar, True Grit finds the Coens bringing their unique sensibility to the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who hires grizzled U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the dim-witted crook who killed her dad. Watching the original on AMC a few weeks ago, I was struck by how close the two films are, almost scene-for-scene, and yet the movies feel completely different - it’s a fascinating reminder that what matters most is not the story itself but how it is told. Whereas director Henry Hathaway staged True Grit as a sun-drenched adventure yarn, the Coens have made a rouge-edged, unsparing and thrillingly alive western, with a Cogburn that speaks in a often-indecipherable growl and finds his heroism almost accidentally (frankly, Bridges mops the floor with the Duke).

But while the brothers’ offbeat sense of humor is definitely present in the film (few other filmmakers would have included the “bear doctor” scene), its lack of ironic distance makes it a departure for the filmmakers. It’s not an anti-western in the No Country For Old Men vein; while it has a wry sense of humor about Cogburn and Texas Ranger Laboeuf’s (Matt Damon) macho posturing, it’s also driven by a very real romantic admiration for true heroism. Snobs have branded the film a sell-out for the Coens, but this stems from the common incorrect reading of their films as misanthropic – from Norville Barnes to Marge Gunderson, the Coens have always been on the side of the good guys, even when (like Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell) they prove outmatched. If anything, it represents the directors growing more diverse; as skilled as they are at being smartasses, it’s exciting to witness them go straight for the heart. They succeed largely thanks to Bridges and Damon, and especially Steinfeld, who is astonishingly assured as the strong, self-reliant Mattie. It’s a greatly entertaining adventure, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins (as if I needed to tell you that), and, in its final minutes, it reveals itself as unexpectedly heartwarming. After the socks to the gut that were their last several endings, it’s just as bracing to find the brothers arriving at a moment of grace; if that doesn’t represent growth in an artist, I don't know what does.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Top 10: 1990

1. Goodfellas (Scorsese)
2. Miller's Crossing (Coen)
3. Wild at Heart (Lynch)
4. Edward Scissorhands (Burton)
5. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (McNaughton)
6. The Witches (Roeg)
7. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Almodovar)
8. Total Recall (Verhoeven)
9. Cry-Baby (Waters)
10. Gremlins 2 (Dante)

There were also a lot of terrible movies released in 1990. Ghost Dad, Problem Child, Spaced Invaders, Rocky V...oy...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Top 10: 1980

One of the best years in film ever. A list of eleven through twenty would be as strong as many years' top tens. Also, I realized it's the only year that my three favorite directors all released a new movie.

1. The Shining (Kubrick)
2. Raging Bull (Scorsese)
3. The Elephant Man (Lynch)
4. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner)
5. Inferno (Argento)
6. Popeye (Altman)
7. Bad Timing (Roeg)
8. Dressed to Kill (De Palma)
9. Kagemusha (Kurosawa)
10. The Fog (Carpenter)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Statham, Scorsese, Svenson

The latest movie quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule (courtesy of Professor Hubert Farnsworth, pictured above) is the first I've been able to participate in for a while. Thanks, Professor (and Dennis) for managing to keep the movie quiz - which has become a sort of staple of SLIFR - so much fun for so long.

1) Best Movie of 2010

With a few outliers remaining to be seen, at this point it looks like I'm going to have to follow the herd and go with The Social Network.

2) Second-favorite Roman Polanski Movie


3) Jason Statham or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

The Rock is a likeable enough guy, but Statham has Snatch and the knowing homoeroticism between himself and Stallone in The Expendables that carries on the proud tradition of Tango and Cash. I'll go with Statham even though my girlfriend would probably leave me for him.

4) Favorite movie that could be classified as a genre hybrid


5) How important is foreknowledge of a film’s production history? Should it factor into one’s reaction to a film?

A movie has to be considered in the context of the time and place that produced it, but direct behind-the-scenes info seems peripheral to the movie's success or failure.

6) William Powell & Myrna Loy or Cary Grant & Irene Dunne

Cary Grant & Irene Dunne

7) Best Actor of 2010

Jeff Bridges, True Grit

8) Most important lesson learned from the past decade of watching movies

Despite the conventional wisdom that dumb is the safest commercial bet, most people really do want to see a good story told smartly when they go to the movies. It's just harder to sell smart than stupid.

9) Last movie seen (DVD/Blu-ray/theater)

On Blu-Ray, Natural Born Killers - so very 90s, but still effective as sensory overload, particuarly in hi-def. In theatres, Blue Valentine - painful to watch but brilliantly acted and beautifully shot.

10) Most appropriate punishment for director Tom Six

I suspect Six is a sadomasochist, so I'm not sure what kind of punishment he wouldn't enjoy. Perhaps to be met with indifferent shrugs?

11) Best under-the-radar movie almost no one else has had the chance to see

Black Moon, Louis Malle's 1975 post-apocalyptic retelling of Alice in Wonderland. Still unavailable on R1 DVD (it would be perfect for Criterion).

12) Sheree North or Angie Dickinson

Angie Dickinson

13) Favorite nakedly autobiographical movie

All That Jazz

14) Movie which best evokes a specific real-life place

I agree with Anonymous - the 42nd Street I've visited in my lifetime is nothing like the one in Taxi Driver, but thanks to Scorsese I feel like I've been there too.

15) Best Director of 2010

David Fincher, The Social Network
16) Second-favorite Farrelly Brothers Movie

There's Something About Mary
17) Favorite holiday movie

My new favorite is Elf.

18) Best Actress of 2010

Natalie Portman, Black Swan

19) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson

My my my my Mitchell!

20) Of those notable figures in the world of the movies who died in 2010, name the one you’ll miss the most

Dennis Hopper

21) Think of a movie with a notable musical score and describe what it might feel like without that accompaniment.

Without Cavalleria Rusticana, Raging Bull would be even bleaker than it already is.

22) Best Screenplay of 2010

The Social Network

23) Movie You Feel Most Evangelistic About Right Now

Synecdoche, New York. I could talk someone's ear off about everything I think and feel for hours or I can just pop that movie in the DVD player and spare us both a lot of time.

24) Worst/funniest movie accent ever

Thandee Newton as an alien in W.

25) Best Cinematography of 2010

Shutter Island

26) Olivia Wilde or Gemma Arterton

Olivia Wilde

27) Name the three best movies you saw for the first time in 2010 (Thanks, Larry!)

Fearless, Modern Romance, Zoolander

28) Best romantic movie couple of 2010

Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig, Greenberg. They're so obviously, uncomfortably wrong for each other, and yet they're probably meant to be together.

29) Favorite shock/surprise ending


30) Best cinematic reason to have stayed home and read a book in 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). I actually fell asleep in the theatre (IRONY).

31) Movies in 2011 could make me much happier if they’d only ______________

retire the orange/blue trend in color timing.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Top 10: 1970

1. El Topo (Jodorowsky)
2. The Conformist (Bertolucci)
3. Performance (Roeg)
4. Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson)
5. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Meyer)
6. Brewster McCloud (Altman)
7. Catch-22 (Nichols)
8. Husbands (Cassavetes)
9. The Wild Child (Truffaut)
10. Gimme Shelter (Maysles/Maysles/Zwerin)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What happened to my sweet girl?

The commercial success of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is kind of astonishing, not just because sexually explicit films usually scare audiences away but because it's the most thematically slippery mainstream hit in recent memory. A dizzying collision of high and low art, that owes an equal debt to Powell, Polanski, Argento and Verhoeven, Black Swan flirts with camp even as it reaches for transcendence. The film's mixture of close-up character study, literally black-and-white archetypes, overt symbolic archetypes, horror movie tropes and kinky sex should be a complete mess, and yet Black Swan is the most wildly entertaining movie of the year. I can list all the elements and influences that the film draws from, but ultimately I can't explain quite why the damn thing works. What a thrill that an an American film in 2010 should be so pleasurably elusive.

It's that indefinable spark of pure creation that eludes Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dancer with a prestigious ballet company in New York. The hardest-working dancer in the company, Nina is given a big break when she's cast as the Swan Queen in the company's production of Swan Lake. A driven perfectionist, Nina is perfect for the role but struggles with director Thomas' (Vincent Cassel) insistence that she also play the seductive Black Swan. Nina, who lives with her controlling, emotionally unstable mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), is a deeply repressed, fragile innocent who cannot "let go," as Tomas repeatedly demands of her. To Tomas, a virile, possibly dangerous man who Nina is smitten with, to "let go" means getting off - ceding technical perfection to emotional release as one does during sexual climax. But Thomas' rather narrow concept of letting go does not anticipate how deeply Nina has buried so much of herself; as Nina begins to let go, her world begins to spiral dangerously out of control.

Like Repulsion and The Tenant, Black Swan is a film of interiors - from beginning to end, we rarely stray from Nina's fragmented point of view. The way that Aronofsky frames Nina's inner life is a fascinating extension of his previous films - the bold use of archetypal imagery of Pi and The Fountain married with the grittier, character-driven approach of The Wrestler. Aronofsky and DP Matthew Libatique relentlessly follow Portman's every move in the early scenes, the grainy 16mm images threaten to disappear right into Nina's mind at any moment. As the more hallucinatory elements of the film emerge, Aronofsky never shies away from following the black/white sexual dichotomy through to its logical end (one nice touch - the color pallette of the film, largely muted pinks and greys at the beginning, grows darker through the film). The result is bigger than life but not heavyhanded; Nina's perception merges with the elevated emotion of ballet in, its a way that does feel true to the creative experience.

Portman is stunning in the role, not just because she convinces as a professional ballerina but because she throws herself wholeheartedly into every moment of Nina's journey. In its own way, Black Swan derives as much of a charge from the parallels between Nina and Portman's public persona as The Wrestler did from Randy the Ram/Mickey Rourke. While Portman has always been a talented actress, there's a strong sense in much of her work ("Hotel Chevalier" aside) that she's quite inhibited in many ways, and she has confirmed as much in interviews. Here, as Nina begins her long descent, Portman's work is unflinching; not only is she fearless in scenes that would terrify just about any actor in their frankness, but she's also never been so completely emotionally exposed. The result is stunning - there are closeups of Portman that are worthy of Maria Falconetti. She's aided by a strong supporting cast - Cassel is wonderfully hammy, Hershey is frighteningly well-cast as Portman's mom, Winona Ryder kills in her few scenes as a bitter older dancer, and Mila Kunis is terrific as Lily, the sexually confident dancer who aims to take Nina's place (or so Nina believes). When the much talked-about sex scene between Portman and Kunis arrives, Aronofsky and his actresses have developed the tension between the two perfectly that it feels less like a hook-up than a collision. And though yes, it's a scene of two attractive young women having sex, it's at least as creepy as it is sexy, especially in light of what it ultimately reveals about Nina. The entire film is like that, seducing us into some very dark places.

So what, finally, is Black Swan really about? Aronofsky describes it as a movie about performance, a companion piece to The Wrestler, and it is most certainly that (though the final shot's callback to the earlier film's ending may be a bit too on-the-nose). But it doesn't quite fit, with its more horrific elements, next to The Company or All That Jazz as the real-life story of a dance company. At the same time, it's not quite a horror movie or, if it is, it defies our expectations of what happens in a horror movie. Is what Black Swan has to say about the creative process muddled by its pulpier thriller-movie tropes, or is it a thriller movie which its director is trying to elevate about its roots? Perhaps the answer lies in ballet itself, which strives for physical perfection and deeper meaning even as it embraces melodrama and emotional excess. Perhaps the world of ballet is the perfect setting for a director who, clever as he can be, is completely incapable of ironic detachment. In that sense this is a logical step forward for the director; he's blown my mind before, but this is the first time he's seduced me.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Top 100 (2011 Edition)

It's been a couple of years since the last time I updated my list of favorite movies, and I'm in a very different place in my life, both geographically and emotionally. For the most part, my life has changed for the better; I'm definitely a lot happier than I've been in a long time. I'm not sure if or how that has affected this list, which isn't drastically different than it was two and a half years ago.

Most of the people in my day-to-day life know me as a "movie expert" and kind of a snob, while compared to most of my internet cinephile friends and the writers I enjoy reading, my favorites seem awfully American and new. I'll admit that when I was younger, this made me feel a bit self-conscious; now I feel like maybe the final lesson for a movie lover, after amassing an eclectic knowledge of film spanning genres, decades and countries, is to embrace the fact that you just like the stuff you like.

1. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
3. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
5. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
6. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
7. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
8. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
9. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
10. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

11. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
12. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
13. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
14. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
15. Kill Bill vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
16. Kill Bill vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)
17. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
18. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
19. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
20. All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)

21. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
22. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
23. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
24. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
25. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
26. Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)
27. The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
28. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
29. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
30. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

31. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
32. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
33. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
34. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
35. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)
36. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)
37. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
38. Aguirre the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
39. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
40. Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut, 1962)

41. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
42. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
43. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
44. Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
45. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
46. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
47. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
48. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
49. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
50. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

51. Lolita (stanley Kubrick, 1962)
52. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
53. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
54. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
55. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
56. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)
57. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
58. Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
59. Last Tango in Paris (Bernard Bertolucci, 1972)
60. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)

61. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
62. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
63. Betty Blue (Jean-Jacques Beneiex, 1986)
64. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)
65. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
66. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
67. Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980)
68. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
69. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
70. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)

71. Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
72. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
73. El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)
74. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
75. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
76. The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977)
77. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1996)
78. Orphee (Jean Cocteau, 1949)
79. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
80. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

81. Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel, 1967)
82. Miller's Crossing (Joel Coen, 1990)
83. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
84. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
85. Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
86. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
87. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
88. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
89. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
90. O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson, 1973)

91. Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002)
92. Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977)
93. Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)
94. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
95. Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
96. The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998)
97. Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982)
98. The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)
99. True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993)
100. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)