Monday, January 26, 2015

1949: Top Ten

1.       Late Spring (Ozu)
2.       White Heat (Walsh)
3.       Reign of Terror (Mann) 
4.       The Third Man (Reed) 
5.       Adam’s Rib (Cukor) 
6.       Battleground (Wellman) 
7.       Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer) 
8.       Obsession (Dmytryk) 
9.       They Live By Night (Ray) 
10.   She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford)

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order):  Africa Screams (Barton),  The Big Steal (Siegel), Bitter Rice (De Santis), Border Incident (Mann), Caught (Ophuls), Colorado Territory (Walsh), Criss Cross (Siodmak), Flamingo Road (Curtiz), The Great Madcap (Bunuel), The Heiress (Wyler), House of Strangers (Mankiewicz), I Shot Jesse James (Fuller), I Was a Male War Bride (Hawks), The Inspector General (Koster), Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown), A Letter to Three Wives (Mankiewicz), On the Town (Kelly and Donen), The Quiet Duel (Kurosawa), The Reckless Moment (Ophuls), Sands of Iwo Jima (Dwan), The Set-Up (Wise), Le Silence de la mer (Melville), The Small Black Room (Powell and Pressburger), Stray Dog (Kurosawa), Thieves Highway (Dassin), Whirlpool (Preminger), Whiskey Galore! (Mackendrick).

Wishlist/Blindspots: Beyond the Forest, Easy Living, The Fountainhead, Impact, Festival Day, Knock on Any Door, Manon, Slaterry’s Hurricane, Twelve O’clock High, The Spider and the Fly.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2014: Top Ten

I get such pointless anxiety when I try and put these lists together. My thought process is complicated and annoying. For instance, I think you can see that my first four picks are all awards sirens, three of which reek of prestigious domestic auteur status. I genuinely feel stupid for going so steadfastly with the grain, but I can assure you I am being sincere in my adulation. I guess I’d feel equally stupid disingenuously throwing lesser known and loved films at the top if I didn’t truly love them as much.  I’ll admit that I’m the type to go into a Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Paul Thomas Anderson (not to mention Jarmusch, Fincher, and Dardenne) with high expectations and said expectations don’t usually prove in detriment to my overall impression. However, I’m convinced that I’m not completely blind to the likely flaws in each of my top movies and I hope I’m not the type to “carry anyone’s water” so to speak. In a way I guess I’m relieved to find the Andersons continuing to challenge even their most steadfast champions either by burrowing further into their inimitable worlds or possibly throwing the final mound of dirt on most of what we’ve known before. Inherent Vice is many things, but the thing that stuck the most with me appears in the book’s epigraph where Pynchon writes “under the paving stones, the beach!” I didn’t really know what to write about it after seeing it as I was trying to arrange all of the information and hopefully make sense of it. I saw today that Glenn Kenny wrote a wonderful essay on said epigraph’s “end of an era” theme and how this worked its way into the movie. For me, Inherent Vice felt like a eulogy buried within a romp about the encroaching extinction of Doc’s way of life. His act of altruism towards Coy Harlingen and his family truly moved me and took it to that next level of adoration that maybe was missing from some of his previous works. Reading the book is certainly helping fill in the voids that mind couldn’t possibly process in a theater (some of the lines were damn near inaudible).

And how about Wes Anderson, whose style and vibe has been mocked and parodied ad nauseam by his fans and detractors. Here he’s created a mock world to ape that of WWII, with a similar encroaching neighbor-sellout-neighbor-malady and a similar (yet fatal) act of selflessness from a dodgy antihero. I’ve spoken to many friends around the same age (early thirties) ---- for whom Anderson’s first three features proved critical to their development  ---- about the weird fatigue that has been setting in even while not necessarily loathing his recent work. I’ve urged them to ignore this and watch The Grand Budapest Hotel as I think it’s got the cure for whatever trivial ailments we thought upset us. And similarly, I think many feel some fatigue from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night. I can’t disagree that the film is schematic and predictable, and I’ll admit that it took longer than expected for me to get fully engulfed in the drama, but seeing these two masters land this with such elegance and control (thanks also, obviously, to Cotillard’s second great performance of 2014) was truly incredible.

I’m in agreement that movies are lacking a genuine representation of all walks of life. We are oversaturated with white, patriarchal, middle/upper class, heteronormative, and entitled protagonists and we need this remedied now. There were a few films to broaden our perspective, I’m hoping 2015 brings us more. They certainly aren’t remedied in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood but I’m not complaining. Linklater and company have honed in on and highlighted the moments in a family’s life (at least a 12 year span) that stuck with me, not by hopping from one milestone to the next but filling in the gaps with those crucial junctures that seem to stick in the back of our minds. Yeah, and it hit me on a personal level, mostly because I’m a new dad and I’m looking forward to some of these milestones and gap fillers, but also because I was once a child with a mom and dad and sibling and life happened. And as for the scenes that elicit what I would consider justifiable grief over either broad caricatures, odd abrupt transformations, and strained reunions I’d like to remind you that these scenes make up about fifty seconds of a film that runs about two hours and forty-six minutes. I completely understand those who don’t connect with it or even find it slight or annoying but for those who try to pin the film’s failure overall on those brief lapses in judgment I just want to remind you that it’s in your embedded nature to blow the negative aspects of life out of proportion. And I hope I don’t ruffle feathers to suggest that David Fincher’s Gone Girl, while probably not the “laying the institution of marriage to waste” masterpiece that so many proclaimed, is also not claiming that Nick and Amy represent manhood and womanhood incarnate. I dread the day in which villains cease to exist, or where writers and directors tread lightly when selecting their antagonists various sexual, gender, racial, or mental health characteristics. I can’t justifiably call out Fincher and Flynn and still be a self-respecting Leave Her to Heaven fan after all. I thought this was a sly, funny thriller with the director’s distinctive knack for pace, space, and atmosphere. I’m reading a lot of gushing about how Michael Mann is able to elevate “high concept junk” via his expressive style and atmosphere, AMEN, but I guess I’d wager that Fincher is doing the same for now. I especially loved how the movie eventually flies gleefully/preposterously off the rails. Still, I’m not impervious to the thought of Fincher and Anderson being knocked off their demigod perch.

Winter Sleep and The Tale of Princess Kaguya dapple with parenthood and marriage amongst other things. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is visually minimal but far from simple, thematically mystifying but far from impenetrable. It’s a fairy tale about a father’s mixed up but benevolent ideas about his magical daughter’s future and how his lavish notions displace her from her idyllic habitat and stifle her true dreams and passions. This leads to a heartbreaking finale, something Isao Takahata had perfected long ago. Winter Light does an accurate job in observing the disintegration of a marriage. At first it seems serene enough, to each his/her own with some minor hiccups, but then our "protagonist" goes from avoiding a fight to being the hammer that only sees nails. It doesn't hurt to have Nuri Bilge Ceylan's eye for composition nor does it hurt to have a cast this good, but the thing that maybe separates it from any other gorgeous movie is its ability to dismantle a relationship without pinning the downfall to a single cause or person. And I’m only highlighting one of the movies many themes, mainly because it hit me at the time personally. Pride is the key to his downfall.  A wiser man however would know when he's licked as Aydin is so clearly licked here. His arrogance (similar to the feeble "protagonist" of Listen Up Phillip) and smug infatuation with age and experience (constantly using it against his younger better half) have finally lost their sting. You see it in Nihal's tired eyes, like the wild horse Aydin pays to imprison with him at his Cappadocian Xanadu she yearns to be free of his reigns.

My friend Jackson described Under the Skin as a feature length Calvin Klein commercial, or something to that nature. I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends with very little company in the “it’s a masterpiece” camp. I get it, but I also think it’s fitting that a film that emphasizes the treachery of surfaces is seen as surface level trifle.  I also get my friend John’s comments about Only Lovers Left Alive being cute, though not any more or less cute than Jarmusch’s other work which he seems to like just fine. I found more to love in both, obviously, and I wrote at length about it. I’m also going to have to just admit that Land Ho! scratched me right where I needed it even as many found it slight. Early Lyn Nelson and Paul Eehoorn deserve awards, all of them now!

One more. Ava DuVernay's Selma hones in on a specific time, place, group of people, and climate for most of its entirety. Like Lincoln, it focuses specifically on the passing of a certain piece of legislation and all of the negotiation and compromise (or lack thereof) that comes with it. For a long duration of time I was convinced it was a masterpiece. I'm not saying it isn't a masterpiece, not yet, but I'll admit that there came a point somewhere after the second march on Edmund Pettis Bridge where the movie started to slide for me. I don't know how else to describe it other than to say that there are moments in movies or even a band's set where you feel it should end. Then the movie or set continues on for whatever reason and some of the air gets let out. I guess I felt that during a few scenes towards the end, maybe one too many meetings or visits to the oval office. So I’m sure it deserves a higher spot but for now I’m going to cheat and keep it as a tie with another timely film about our societal devaluing of human life. It’s an important movie and that goes a long way for me, at least right now.

Honorable mentions? I’m going to limit my list because it pains me to leave these movies off the top ten. I don’t know why or how Snowpiercer isn’t as good as any of the seven through ten picks other than to say that the ending felt a little rushed and expository for my taste. Still, I think it’s incredible and I’ll probably remedy my snub after watching it again. Likewise, I thought James Gray’s The Immigrant would land but I found myself feeling the complete opposite about the ending and rather begrudging some of what came before. Still, it’s another great Gray film that wasn’t seen by nearly enough people. He’ll have his day. I finally caught up with Shoah and it’s as great as I had anticipated. I kept scanning the land for something, maybe remains or even ghosts, but I found Lanzmann’s Last of the Unjust another wonderful companion piece that, once again, could have easily cracked this list. Biggest surprise of the year? I would say Tommy Lee Jones’ strange, disturbing, and consistently surprising The Homesman, my pick for movie with the best ending of 2014. I loved Ida and We are the Best a lot. Why lump them together, because I saw them both on Netflix Instant two nights in a row. John Wick was the best maintstream action movie I saw all year, with Edge of Tomorrow nipping at its heels. Both have lackluster endings however and some other problems peppered in. The Guest was another huge surprise as I’ve been underwhelmed by every long or short film from Adam Wingard. It’s satisfying genre work plain and simple. Life Itself moved me and Birdman (the movie that all of my Williamsburg pals seemed to prefer) is, to me, hopefully a sign of things to come from a director I haven’t frankly cared for in the past. I’m wrestling with American Sniper on a gut level, but that’s probably the intent here. Also, Locke was a great story with a great central performance (another reason to hail Hardy as one of our best living actors) but I struggled with the visual aspects of the movie. I also quite liked Ira Sachs’ Make Way For Tomorrow update Love is Strange and Jimmy P. That’s all folks!

My Top Ten of 2014:

  1.       The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
  2.       Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
  3.       Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  4.       Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
  5.      Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  6.      Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
  7.      Land Ho! (Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens)
  8.  The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)
  9.     Gone Girl (David Fincher)
10.    Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) and Selma ((Ava DuVernay )

Honorable Mentions: Snowpiercer (Bong-Joon Ho), The Immigrant (Gray), Last of the Unjust (Lanzmann , , The Homesman (Jones), Ida (Pawlikowski), The Guest (Wingard), We Are the Best (Moodysson), Edge of Tomorrow (Liman), John Wick (Leitch and Stahelski), Life Itself (James), Birdman (Innuaritu) Love is Strange (Sachs).

Blindspots: Goodbye to Language, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Closed Curtain, Stray Dogs, Actress, National Gallery, Stranger by the Lake, Citizenfour,  Last Days in Vietnam, Horse Money, Top Five, Beyond the Lights, Whiplash, Lucy.