Over at the Cinemarati Roundtable, Nick Davis is tabulating a poll of "The Best of the First Half of the 00s", here meaning 2000-2004. He's asked participants (member critics and bums on the street like me) to submit their top 25 films, top 10 performances, top 10 supporting performances, and the top 10 best new filmmakers (that is, directors who debuted their first feature film in the last five years). The results will be tabulated Village Voice style, although it's unclear if we'll be submitting snarky one-liners as well. I took the time to make up a list, so why not keep the blog going with a quick cut-and-paste job?
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
2. Memento (2001, Christopher Nolan)
3. 25th Hour (2002, Spike Lee)
4. Hero (2004, Zhang Yimou)
5. Monsters, Inc. (2001, Peter Docter)
6. Code Unknown (2000, Michael Haneke)
7. Eureka (2001, Shinji Aoyama)
8. Gerry (2003, Gus Van Sant)
9. Spirited Away (2002, Hayao Miyazaki)
10. Songs from the Second Floor (2002, Roy Andersson)
11. Irreversible (2003, Gaspar Noe)
12. Time Out (2002, Laurent Cantet)
13. Spider-Man (2002, Sam Raimi)
14. Dogville (2004, Lars von Trier)
15. National 7 (2000, Jean-Pierre Sinapi)
16. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Béla Tarr)
17. The Pledge (2001, Sean Penn)
18. Punch-Drunk Love (2002, Paul Thomas Anderson)
19. Primer (2004, Shane Carruth)
20. I ♥ Huckabees (2004, David O. Russell)
21. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003, Quentin Tarantino)
22. Ginger Snaps (2000, John Fawcett)
23. The Saddest Music in the World (2004, Guy Maddin)
24. The Day I Became A Woman (2001, Marziyeh Meshkini)
25. Dawn of the Dead (2004, Zack Snyder)
1. Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive)
2. Paul Giamatti (Duets)
3. Hugh Grant (About A Boy)
4. Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Carribean)
5. Ewan MacGregor (Down With Love)
6. Sibel Kekilli (Head-On)
7. Birol Ünel (Head-On)
8. Johnny Depp (Secret Window)
9. Lance Crouther (Pootie Tang)
10. Will Ferrell (Elf)
Best Supporting Performance
1. Miranda Richardson (Spider)
2. Daniel Day Lewis (Gangs of New York)
3. Paul Bettany (Dogville)
4. Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me)
5. Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man)
6. Mark Wahlberg (I ♥ Huckabees)
7. Jude Law (I ♥ Huckabees)
8. Josh Peck (Mean Creek)
9. Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass)
10. Emily Perkins (Ginger Snaps)
Best New Filmmaker
1. Shane Carruth
2. David Gordon Green
3. Marziyeh Meshkini
4. Sofia Coppola
5. Dover Koshashvili
6. Zach Braff
7. Jean-Pierre Sinapi
8. Alejandro González Iñárritu
9. Jacob Aaron Estes
10. Edgar Wright
I've been working pretty hard on this blog for the last couple weeks (hopefully, y'all have noticed), trying to write ~200 words for each movie I see. Well, the real world has reared its ugly head, and the blog's gonna have to take a back seat for awhile. I'll still be keeping my film log updated, and I may throw a few words up here to keep the "empty goldfish bowl" look away. Also, I plan on finishing the entry on I ♥ Huckabees, although any insight gleaned from it will be purely coincidental.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION FOR THOSE WHO WISH TO COMMENT:
If you're having trouble posting a comment to this blog, it may be because of the URL box on the form. Either leave it blank, or eliminate the "http://" bit. I keep forgetting to ask Martin about this. Maybe he's reading [rubs magic lamp...]
Another fond childhood nightmare down the shitter. Still has its moments: a good shot revealing the heroine's vampire-induced madness by focusing on her ankles as she moves around her trashed apartment, one of the young men lighting a match after a blackout, then looking up into the face of Count Yorga (a shot expanded upon to greater effect in Kelljan's Scream, Blacula, Scream), and the tense climax -- when the villain mocks your call for help, you know you're in deep shit. I don't even mind the oft-derided narration, which attempts in the opening scene to bridge the gap between gothic Hammer horror and the sunlit, New Agey world of 1970 Los Angeles. But the integration isn't as successful as I originally thought. How did I miss how fakey and House of Waxy Yorga's inner chamber looks? Why did I think that the film had a creepy Hotel California vibe when it's just underexposed? Why didn't I notice that it was originally intended as a soft-core cheapie (see original title, on the DVD print)? Speaking of which, how could I have possibly missed the poor lighting, where certain nightime scenes look exactly like the daytime they were filmed in, and the blotchy, flat look that would embarrass the producers of stag films? Still worth a look, especially for the last fifteen minutes, but I'm thinking I seriously underrated the more professional Blacula sequel.
Ever see that episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns hires Señor Spielbergo to make the hagiographic "A Burns For All Seasons"? Yeah. Potentially interesting twist to the biopic -- Darin directs the movie of his life -- but falls apart in so many ways. It never uses the conceit in any formal way; early on, the kid version of Darin appears and literally calls bullshit on the proceedings, only to drag the story back to day one, like every other fucking biopic. There's also a shot of the kid watching rushes of his memories, but again, nothing is done with it. There's one good idea here (Darin wooing Sandra Dee by crooning the title song in a musical number), and it really isn't that good. And why film, anyway? If this were about Coppola or somebody, it'd make sense, but this is the guy who's famous for his hepcat version of "Mack the Knife". (Can you name any of the ten features Darin appeared in?) Most disastrously, Spacey's Darin doesn't have a single flaw; any difficulties in his life are because of the flaws of other people, usually (come to think of it, only) the women. The overall impression is that Darin is an insufferable, egomaniacal prick, and despite Spacey's efforts to convince, the song-and-dance routine doesn't redeem him. I dunno, maybe it's actually brilliant; the last dance sequence, featuring a dozen lookalikes cavorting about and creating a funhouse mirror effect, is as disconcerting as Malkovich Malkovich, and apropos of a solipsistic self-directed biography. It would've made more sense if the film was about Kevin Spacey making a Bobby Darin movie. But that might've cut a little too close to the bone, eh Mack?
or, I Don't Know Where The Hell We're Going. More Pressburger's bag, really; Powell is up to the task of making the story believable (after a rather tortured opening) and gets good performances (including the magnetic Olivier as a trapper wizth ahn outrageous French accent), but he's just there to make sure this crazy-ass propaganda film doesn't go off the tracks. (There's a scene near the end that features an intellectual, slightly effeminate novelist lecturing two Nazis, dressed in three-piece suits, on the topic of Indians while in a teepee; that I had to think about how weird this was is a testament to Powell's ability.) A strange, fascinating script from Pressburger. He tells the story of six Nazis trying to escape Canada entirely from their point-of view. We aren't asked to find them sympathetic, but being the center of the narrative, we are forced to be in their shoes. There's a great deal of humor in their interactions with the various left-of-center oddballs they come across (mountain men, Socialist Christians, an army deserter). Then, brilliantly, cruelly, he uses a counter-intuitive strategy to propel the story forward: every character that's interesting or sympathetic is killed or left behind, until only the most despicable and fanatical are left, and in each scene the humor quickly sours into brutality. It's almost a parody of traditional film narrative, with the usual willful protagonist replaced by the Überwillful Nazi lieutenant (key image: the lieutentant marches through the wilderness, and doesn't stop when his only remaining soldier drops to the ground, exhausted.) While it's wonderfully unpredictable, I'm not sure how well it would hold up on a second viewing. And because it's propaganda designed to bring America into the war, there's too many moments where the film stops to denounce Fascism. That's the thing about propaganda; once its shelf-life is up, the message is either stupid or common sense.
Then again, seeing how it's about crazy, inhuman Fascists versus compassionate, independent "decadent Democrats", maybe the message here isn't as dated as I originally thought.
Still my favorite fantasy movie (of the D&D subtype) of all time, and that's including LOTR. I love them hobbits as much as the next geek, and while the epic scale of the thing is impressive, I really love Dragonslayer's inconsequential-corner-of-the-world setting. And what a setting: The time of magic and fantastic beasts is at an end, soon to be replaced by some newfangled religion called "Christianity". Everyone can feel the change in the air, from sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) to the peasants to the dragon herself. (Naturally, only the local ruler is clueless.) When a group of peasants led by Valerian (the late Caitlin Clarke) ask Ulrich to kill the dragon that's terrorized their village for years, the last living sorcerer and the last living dragon are pit against each other. And in this medieval backwater, hidden away from any cultural or political center, the old world of magic takes its last breath, only witnessed by a few.
Arguably, the movie doesn't have to do anything more than provide a dragon and a hero to slay it, but smartly, it takes this scenario and adds some depth and twists to it. Nearly every character has more than one side. There's the protagonist, Galen (Peter MacNicol, an interesting choice that works), a socerer's apprentice-turned-warrior, who, amusingly, steps into his hero role with glee and a sense of entitlement. (Ironically, his true role is revealed to be much more passive.) Valerian is a girl who has been disguised as a boy for her entire life (to protect her from the virgin-eating dragon); interestingly, she becomes a stronger, more willful character once she drops the charade and embraces her femininity. The Princess (Chloe Salaman) is a sheltered girl who grows a political conscience. Tyrian (John Hallam), the nominal bad guy, is a warrior with the soul of a bureaucrat. Nobody, not even the dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative (the best dragon on film, a marvelous achievement from ILM; it wasn't until this viewing that I could tell that a form of stop-motion was used) is a clear-cut villain.
But all of this doesn't hint at how fast-paced, witty, and light-on-its-feet Robbins has made his movie. Often, a scene will kill two narrative birds with one stone (as when the Princess confronts her father about the lottery while he's examining Galen's magic amulet) and there are a number of dry humorous bits (Ulrich's entrance upon meeting Valerian and company; the way the soldiers start to run away one by one during the last sacrifice to the dragon). And Ralph Richardson is a hoot.
The end of the movie, which until this point has been all fog, smoke and darkness, is the only time we see clear sky and full daylight. It rings of a happy ending, light defeating darkness, but there's an irony there as well, as Galen and Valerian are given two choices as to what the new world will be. The darkness was dangerous, but it is missed.
Kubrick's second feature, and, as Trio reminded me incessantly, the last one to be filmed from original material. Not surprising; Kubrick is credited with the story (there is no screenplay credit) and eeet's wayfair theen, a noir about a down-on-his-luck boxer and a down-on-her-luck private dancer and their attempt to leave New York and her thuggish boss behind. The characters are ciphers, and since most of the plot is them getting dicked around for wanting a better life, it comes across as kinda silly and inconsequential. According to Trio, Kubrick filmed it entirely without sound, dubbing it in later. It's a pretty good job (I don't think I would've noticed), but more importantly, it allowed Kubrick to put the camera anywhere he pleased, and any interest comes from the remarkable shots and bits of business that punctuate the film. The last fifteen minutes or so is an extended action/chase sequence, and done very well, considering the low budget and Kubrick's inexperience. Looks like he could've been another Don Siegel if he wanted; luckily for us, he chose to be himself.
While Ed Gonzalez suggests that Cabin Fever is an allegory for the Reagan administration's piss-poor response to AIDS in the 80s, and I think there's something interesting in the contrast between the clean and pretty images of this 2003 movie and the grimy funk of the 70s horror that Roth clearly admires (especially in the context of a virus story), that doesn't excuse it from being one of the worst-written movies I've seen since May. Text before subtext, I always say. (Actually, I've never said that, but I think I've always believed it.)
And the text is amazingly, frustratingly terrible. Nearly every important moment in the story is lazily contrived to the Nth degree: the decision to drink only beer, the nearby camper and his dog, the attempt to get help from the nearby cabin, the damaged truck (which is ridiculously unspecific; there may as well be a Sims-style status bar over the character that fixes it), and the biting kid, the fucking kid that bites. Biting Kid is representative of how arbitrary everything in the story is; Roth sets up "rules" for his behavior in the beginning, then blatantly violates them at the end for the sake of moving the movie forward.
And a little thought and imagination could've improved things. Roth reveals the source of the infection early on, presumably in order to create some Hitchcockian tension. But he blows this (there should be at least one moment when someone accidentally knocks over a glass of bad water), and it turns out the tension is a zero-sum game anyway; either they drink it, or they don't. If the reveal of the source had been delayed, the audience would've been in the same place as the characters, confused and terrified as to the source of the disease. The arguments and strategies the characters devise for protecting themselves would've made them more sympathetic (always key to a horror story is, "What would I do in that situation?"); instead, we know what the problem is and are encouraged to take a smug, superior view of things.
I suppose some would say that all of the above is beside the point, that Cabin Fever is not a horror film but a nightmare comedy, like After Hours. Perhaps. But a nightmare comedy is more than just a bunch of crazy shit that happens; it's a philosophical statement, that the universe is random and unknowable, and it's expressed through the travails of a Job-like Everyman. But the presence of a virus and its known vector undercuts the philosophy, and the ill-defined and obnoxious characters undercut the Everyman. It's just a bunch of crazy shit.
I'm going to pretend for a moment that Mystery Science Theater 3000 doesn't exist, a) because I watched this without the guidance and support of Mike and the 'bots, and b) as a kind of acknowledgement of some of the criticisms hurled at the show, primarily by J. Ho and J. Ro, even though I think those criticisms are misguided.
Coleman Francis was kind of a right-wing Ed Wood: a passionate filmmaker with a vision and absolutely no talent to bring it forth. The Skydivers was his second of three completed features, in between the tentative steps of his first, The Beast of Yucca Flats and his defining statement, Night Train to Mundo Fine, a.k.a. Red Zone Cuba. The world of Coleman Francis is one of guns, airplanes, cruelty, a mistrust of government, and finally, guns, and it's probably just as well that he only made three films.
The Skydivers is slightly odd in the context of his work, in that it is the only one to feature sympathetic characters. (The men in Red Zone Cuba are thoroughly despicable, and there are no characters at all in Yucca Flats, only images of people.) The focus is on Beth (Kevin Casey) and Harry (Anthony Cardoza, Coleman's longtime producer), a couple that run a skydiving school and whose marriage is crumbling. However incompetent the staging and acting may be (and it's worse than you may imagine), there's a genuine attempt here at conveying real emotions and the distance that can come between two people. Refreshingly, Francis allows these characters to experience happiness amidst the inevitable deaths; there are plenty, plenty of shots of skydivers' faces, as they gaze on the land they are gently floating down to meet. The act of skydiving and the comraderie it fosters becomes a metaphor for the joy and acceptance that Francis sought in filmmaking.
Beth has a unique position in the Francis canon: she's the only positive female character he created. It's interesting to note that she's stripped of the usual stereotypical feminine traits of Francis Coleman women. Until the very end, she never wears anything but a baggy jumpsuit, her utterly strange hairstyle is not unlike the helmets of the skydivers, and she runs the skydiving school with quiet authority, like she was one of the guys. I also think he's non-judgmental about the affairs that Harry and Beth have; although both suffer consequences, it's clear to me that they suffer because (in all Francis pictures) there are evil people in the world, nothing more, nothing less.
But discussion of a Coleman Francis movie is incomplete without mentioning the typically garbled use of cinematic syntax. The editing is atrocious, so bad that it's literally educational -- you could learn how to edit by its negative example. While there are the expected shots with mismatched lighting and shots that make characters standing next to each other seem like they're miles apart, there is one shot that is absolutely jaw-dropping. Beth is piloting the plane, and she's on the runway, either having trouble taking off or landing (it's unclear which). The plane is moving and bouncing up and down in a wide shot. In another shot, Harry and sees her, and runs off-screen towards the plane. Then, in a medium shot, we see the body of the plane. It's still bouncing up and down (clearly from the machinations of off-screen grips). Our learned experience of film tells us, subconsciously, that the plane is still moving. But then Harry rushes into the shot -- plane still bouncing -- and pulls Beth out of the plane. In one short sequence, Francis seriously injures the Bazinian idea that there is anything "real" in the photographic image; it's all artifice, and it's (barely) held together by the viewer.
By the end, Francis' attempts at some kind of empathy are stillborn, and we get the usual manhunt-via-aircraft that ends all his films. This one is particularly noxious, since the manhunt, convened to catch a pair of murderers, is essentially a mob. No one attempts to contact the police; instead, the characters form a posse and extract frontier justice. Fittingly, the man with the rifle in the airplane is played by none other than Coleman Francis himself.
Documentary about Buster Keaton's lesser-known MGM years, when he went from an independent filmmaker to a contract player, and from a hugely successful comedian to an unemployable, alcoholic one. Certainly valuable for an archival interview with Keaton in 1964, as well as some of the footage from very minor sound films, showing the maestro of physical comedy straining under the dialogue-driven farces he was forced to make. Problems, though: It's too short (45 minutes) and although the focus is narrow, there's still very little depth here, as if pitched to the non-buff. That's an odd choice, since the context necessary to understand this story as the tragedy it is -- that Keaton was a genius -- is barely demonstrated. Also, there's not enough detail on Keaton's life or personality; in some ways, his story comes across as not that different from MC Hammer's. Speaking of which, another problem is the use of clips; when the narrator (James Karen, most famous to me as Ernie from Return of the Living Dead) says that Keaton had an "uphill struggle against alcohol", we cut right to a scene from What -- No Beer? showing a truck slowly driving up a hill. And frankly, how is that different from the Simpsons' "Behind The Music" episode? Finally, the one thing I hoped would be covered -- Keaton's role in Film, the only screenplay Samuel Beckett ever wrote -- goes completely unmentioned. Consolation prize: a scene from a remake of The Cameraman (starring Red Skelton) that was excised and destroyed in the original.
I'm starting to think Robert Culp is an unappreciated actor. He's got an interesting presence, a kind of wounded machismo, like a tough guy who's gone on an inner journey and discovered his feminine side, and it scares him. In A Name For Evil, he never seems entirely comfortable, either in his skin or in his social role, but is always trying to hide and/or contain this discomfort.
Which means he's perfect as Bob in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, as a documentary filmmaker who, along with his wife Carol (Natalie Wood), finds himself transformed (or so he thinks) by a New Agey resort into a more open, honest, and loving human being. Meaning: he and his wife are open to having affairs without the attendant jealousy or anger. Culp is terrific; we never believe that he totally buys what he's learned at the resort, but rather that he believes he believes. When they rejoin their closest friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) after the retreat, their new attitudes (everything is "beautiful" to them) clash with their friends' neuroses, setting into motion a series of seriocomic episodes and epiphanies.
I'm not sure that "seriocomic" is the right word here; that indicates to me an alternating sequence of serious and funny scenes. What Mazursky does, to his credit, is let the viewer decide what's funny and what isn't. There are very few straight gags or one-liners; instead, the film is structured into a handful of very long scenes, each filled with awkward moments between characters that shift instantaneously from painful to funny and back again, like a ray of dramatic light that changes from a tragic particle to comedy wave. It's emotional slapstick, watching Gould trying to get Cannon to have sex with him (she's upset upon learning about Culp's affair) or Culp as he bends over backward, against his natural instincts, to treat his wife's extramarital lover with kindness and respect.
Make no mistake, however; this is definitely a Hollywood film. The ending, a rip of 8 1/2 that's a welcome departure from the naturalism of the previous hundred minutes, is also an attempt to leave on a positive note. The previous scene may have changed the relationships between the four characters for good, but we aren't privy to what those changes are, just an exhortation for the audience to find and hold onto love.
Yet while the film is a sitcom by Cassavetian standards (at times, it feels like a Hollywood reaction to Faces), it's arty and European by mainstream ones. I like how Mazursky sneaks in certain visuals from the resort (the group hugs, the beating of pillows, the intense eye contact) into this quartet's upper-class world. Interestingly, though (at least coming from the director of Down and Out in Beverly Hills), class isn't addressed here; these are rich people, with maids and giant swimming pools, and it doesn't seem like much is made of the fact that they have the money to be this self-indulgent.
(Confidential to "M": Thanks for recommending this. It did help with the script, even though I gave up on that draft after three days. [That's another story.] It has exactly the right kind of tone I'm searching for and have yet to achieve. What was most interesting, of course, was that the character in Gould's story has the same name as my main character. That was a weird coincidence.)
And this is how the message ran: Humans will try to destroy what they fear. Not the most original idea, but certainly interesting, perhaps even brave for a 50s SF flick. (Although, for my money, I'll take the same idea, expressed in two seconds, in Plan 9 From Outer Space: "You humans are stupid! Stupid!" says the alien leader, and is immediately decked by the lunkhead hero.) Too bad that, as a story, it's a bit blah; there's no character development, just the usual types (disbelieved scientist hero, disbelieving sheriff, faithful girlfriend) that probably seemed like clichés even then. This coupled, with the non-hostile aliens (the movie plays like a benign version of Invaders From Mars) creates a narrative that's all movement and nothing emotionally involving. But damn, what movement. Although it can't compare to Arnold's masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man, nearly every shot is fantastic -- he and cinematographer Clifford Stine seem incapable of a bad composition. Using both real locations and sets, they manage to create the desert that exists mostly in the imagination, a landscape that is both Romanticized and alien, moon-like, not unlike what Ang Lee would later do in Hulk. A couple sequences, virtually wordless, turn his usual strong and pulpy style into poetry: the initial investigation of the meteor crash, revealing the spaceship, and the hero chasing after his girlfriend, who unbeknownst to him (but clear to us) has been replaced by an alien, as she attempts to lead him, siren-like, to his death. Arnold apparently made a few Westerns in his career, a genre that rewards those who find beauty in the rocks and cacti of the Southwest; I'm curious to discover if he was able to bridge the gap.
Not only is it a new year, but it's also he loved him some movies' birthday. Yes, it's actually been a year since I crawled up from a cave in Mountlake Terrace and started this blog. And it's been a pretty cool blog year to boot. Let's see: Met some totally amazing and cool compadres-in-cinephilia (Scott, Steve, Matt, Dan, Chris, and his alter-ego, Chris); got in contact with friends from the Old Country (Hey Nate! Hey Jess & Matt! Hope to find that tape soon!); discovered Listology and its super-cool creator, Jim; and Martin and I made the Project Greenlight Top 100 with our script, Yellow (and wrote two drafts, as well).
Hopefully 2005 will be as good. Although I have some goals for the new year, I'm trying not to call them "resolutions"; as Mary cruelly informed me while in Brighton this year, 80% of all resolutions fail, if you call them "New Year's Resolutions". So, anyway, goals. Here's a juicy quote from January 3, 2004:
"So, anyway, I hope to see at least 50 movies in the theater this year and get back into the swing of things.
Heh. Well, I only saw 24 movies in the theater in 2004, about two a month. A lot of that had to do with a lack of funds; that shouldn't be the case this year. But more than getting out of the house and away from the DVD and TiVo, I want to make an effort to see more limited-run foreign films. There's at least three good places to see non-mass-market fare in Seattle: The Grand Illusion, the new Northwest Film Forum theater, and the Seattle Art Museum, which also programs a lot of classic films, as well. Let's see if I can give them some of my business this year.
Addendum, five minutes later: I just discovered that SAM is having a frickin' Michael Powell retrospective, including I Know Where I'm Going!, Black Narcissus, Peeping Tom, The Red Shoes, the never-seen-by-me Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and one of the best movies ever made, A Matter of Life and Death. I damn well better do this. Maybe Martin can whip me into shape.