Monday, July 31, 2006

2005 in review: #13 (a bit of a cheat, but oh well)

13. The Story of Marie and Julien (Jacques Rivette)

B-side: Not on the Lips (Alain Resnais)

In a just world, both of these films would be situated much higher on this list (somewhere around #5 or #6, I’d wager). But as we all know we aren’t living in a just world. Every film on my worst-of-2005 was released in the United States, many on thousands of screens, whereas neither Rivette nor Resnais- both cinematic masters- could get a commercial release here. For shame! Both of these films found their great directors doing some of their best work in years, and I was lucky enough to see them both on the big screen through the efforts of enterprising specialty venues.

Alas, because of slumping foreign-film grosses, most non-English-language offerings, even great ones like these, will be going straight to DVD in the years to come. The shift of arthouse stalwart Wellspring Films from theatrical distribution into home video is only the most visible example of this. If distribution companies have trouble selling big-budget releases to the people, what kind of shot do the smaller films have? In years past, both films would have seemed fairly solid bets for arthouse releases- in particular NOT ON THE LIPS, which is on the surface a charming operetta which stars AMELIE’s own Audrey Tautou. And while the enigmatic, haunting MARIE AND JULIEN is admittedly more of a niche title, nudity from Emmanuelle Beart and some inevitably positive reviews might have at least brought out the curious.

Those times have passed, it seems. Arthouse tastes have shifted to documentaries (not necessarily a bad thing) and cheapie audience-charmers in the FULL MONTY/GREEK WEDDING vein (probably a bad thing). All but the most accessible (read: sellable) foreign films will be consigned to DVD everywhere but the largest cities. Most won’t care- they’ll be too busy fretting over the underperformance by the big-ticket items to take notice of the less visible stuff (who cries for Rivette when THE ISLAND can’t bring in the crowds?). But for those who do care, there’s a real fear that opportunities to see truly great non-mainstream work on the big screen may be vanishing into the ether. How much longer can venues like the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Cleveland Cinematheque afford to fight the good fight for cinema’s sake?

Other notable direct-to-DVD offerings: Tomorrow We Move (Chantal Akerman), No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese), The Models of “Pickpocket” (Babette Magnolte).

2005 in review: First, the inevitable questions...

Was 2005 a good year for movies? Despite what this past year’s Oscars might suggest, I believe that it was. Provided, of course, that you knew where to look. By and large, the respectable awards-bait crop was even stodgier and more underwhelming than usual. Thank goodness then for foreign films and- somewhat more unexpectedly- genre offerings, which had their best showing in years, quality-wise. 2005 was above all a banner year for cinema in all its forms, showing that great films can come in all shapes and sizes.

Why wait until the end of July to post a top 10 list? Making best-of lists is something I enjoy, and like all the best hobbies I believe it ought to be approached seriously. As such, I wanted to be thorough. I tried to watch everything I thought might have a chance of contending for my list, and many other films besides (hello, BEE SEASON!). Since I’m not getting paid to watch movies and I’m not in New York or Los Angeles, that means waiting for DVD in many cases. But the good news is that I think I’ve caught all the necessary theatrical releases to assure myself that this is a fairly complete list for the time being.

What’s with the format? While ten is the standard for movie list-making, there were so many films I thought were worth mentioning here that I decided to do something I’ve wanted to do for years. I paired up each film on my list with another film from this past year, both to underline prevalent themes and trends in the year’s best films and to illustrate how good a year I thought 2005 was for cinema. Even expanded to twenty, I found it impossible to keep the list to a nice round- albeit arbitary- number, so I simply said to hell with it and did it my way. And so, I give you…

Thursday, July 27, 2006

2005 in review: the year's worst films

Edited to add: OK buds, help a brother out. I'm trying to add a picture but it won't work. Any suggestions? Because I'd like to include pics in my best-of-'05 countdown.

While I work through my approach to 2005's sweetest treats, here's the fuzzy end of the cinematic lollipop, complete with links to my earlier remarks.

1. The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D (Robert Rodriguez)
Aaaagh, my eyes! Without the bargain-basement-level 3D Rodriguez employs here, this would have been a failed but forgettable attempt by the director to meld moviemaking and family devotion (his 6-year-old son created the story). But with 3D added into the mix, this thing is pretty much unwatchable.

2. King’s Ransom (Jeff Byrd)
Like the #2 film on my worst-of-’04 list (THE COOKOUT), this film demonstrates how little Hollywood cares about presenting solid films to urban audiences. What’s disturbing isn’t simply how deeply unfunny KING’S RANSOM is, but how much it hates its characters, black and white.

3. The Perfect Man (Mark Rosman)
Hilary Duff’s latest starring vehicle practically defines the term “vanity project”- a story that’s all about the star, in which the characters never seem to talk about anything but her, and where even her most misguided actions are somehow interpreted as noble.

4. Memoirs of a Geisha (Rob Marshall)
What is a geisha, anyway? Don’t ask this movie. But hey- pretty!

5. Herbie: Fully Loaded (Angela Robinson)
I’m not sure which is worse for Lindsay Lohan’s career- her tabloid-ready lifestyle or crappy kiddie fare like this. But I’d wager the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

6. Dear Wendy (Thomas Vinterberg)
Between this and THE VILLAGE, the “failed allegory” has practically become a subgenre unto itself. Here Vinterberg and screenwriter Lars Von Trier stridently take America to task for its so called “love affair with guns,” but forget to shift the film out of harangue mode. Note to Vinterberg: maybe there’s a reason why Von Trier didn’t direct this one himself.

7. Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe)
All of Crowe’s worst tendencies as a writer-director- up-with-people soliloquies, an overreliance on classic rock to bear the story’s emotional load- with almost none of his previous works’ better qualities. In place of engaging characterizations (Orlando Bloom is a pale shadow of Cusack or Cruise) the film feeds us an I’m-okay-you’re-okay theme that disastrously takes its hero to task for his ambitions.

8. Monster-in-Law (Robert Luketic)
Jane Fonda came out of retirement for THIS????

9. 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom)
Hey look, it’s unsimulated sex. And concert footage. And wow, sex again. Too bad it focuses on perhaps the least compelling romantic couple in recent cinema history.

10. Palindromes (Todd Solondz)
In which the once-promising Solondz makes one last effort to prove his viability by taking a hot-button issue (the abortion debate) and attempting to trick it up by casting a mess of different actresses (and one actor) in the same lead role, Bunuel-style. CITIZEN RUTH attacked this issue much more successfully ten years ago, and didn’t engage in cheap geek-show tactics like dressing a 300-pound actress in a halter top.

Special mention: “The Dangerous Thread of Things” (Michelangelo Antonioni) from the anthology film EROS
While it’s nice to see the ninetysomething-year-old Antonioni still alive and working, this thing is pretty much a disaster. The presence of hot naked chicks can only distract from a movie that’s little more than a self-serious fragrance ad for so long.

One month later...

So I made it down to Columbus. I've actually been here almost a month now, not that most of you would know. There was a snag in getting my Internet set up, you see. Turns out they actually shipped the hardware I needed to get hooked up before I moved, so that when it arrived I wasn't there yet and it ended up getting shipped back. Several weeks of automated messages (from them) and annoyed calls (from me) later, I'm finally in.

The good news is that I found a job. I can't believe I didn't sign up with a temp agency before, since less than a week after I moved in I was putting in my first day of work. Nine-to-five work, to boot. As much fun as I sometimes had at my various movie theatres, money was becoming an issue. To say nothing of social life- now I won't have any excuse not to get out there in the evenings and on the weekends to have fun and meet women. The real question is how- I'm just so out of practice.

It's weird having to pay for movies now. I always had to pay somewhere- I'm not THAT connected- but walking into AMC and standing in line at the box office feels strange to me. Of course, that means I'll have to become slightly more selective about the mainstream stuff I see, although since even when I was working at the theatre up in Akron I wouldn't simply watch movies willy-nilly, it won't be that much of a change. It's not like I would've sat through LITTLE MAN or anything.

Anyway, expect some content in the next few weeks. I can't say how diligently I'll keep up with reviewing movies, but I have a few things in the works. I'm slowly plugging away at my long overdue 2005-in-review piece, which I intend to unveil piecemeal in order to (a) prolong the suspense/agony, (b) put off writing the whole damn thing at once while simultaneously providing fresh content for the blog, and (c) attempt to augment the visual monotony with the occasional visual aid. Let's see if this takes.

In addition, I'm planning a written tribute to one of the great comedic talents of the past half-century (or one of my faves anyway) and, more ambitiously and somewhat further down the line, a host of additions to my top 100ish films of all time list. Stay tuned to this blog- I may just surprise you.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

11 key films in my life

True lovers of film are simultaneously born and made, I'd say- born because their personalities contain more artistic curiosity than most, and made because one doesn't leap from Disney to Dreyer overnight. Of the eleven films listed below (roughly in chronological order), many of these are among my all-time favorites, but I've selected them because they represented a key moment in my evolution as a film lover.

FANTASIA- kids, by and large, love movies. It's not so much the movies they're watching as the act of watching them, seeing the figures looming up on the screen, larger than life, acting out stories for your entertainment. I don't remember most of the movies I watched when I was little, but I remember FANTASIA well for one very good reason- it was the first movie I remember disliking. All of a sudden, movies weren't categorically fun anymore, like a trip to the playground or a bowl of ice cream on a summer day. Movies could be good or bad now, and while I didn't like the movie, it was okay for me not to like it. I had an opinion, and I was as entitled to it as anyone else.

BACK TO THE FUTURE- this is the first movie I ever saw that wasn't a so-called "family movie." Still fairly kid-friendly, to be sure, but also a peek into a more grown-up world than I was accustomed to. Needless to say, this was my favorite movie back in the day. Some kids preferred GHOSTBUSTERS or GOONIES, but BACK TO THE FUTURE was the movie for me. I still love it today.

TAXI DRIVER- I fondly remember the HBO preview weekends of my youth, catching old movies with all the bad words you couldn't hear on TV. I snuck out of bed in the middle of the night to watch this one, expecting Louie and Latka- imagine my surprise! If I thought BACK TO THE FUTURE was grown-up, this was another thing entirely. I picked up fairly quickly that this wasn't made for me, but I kept watching, fascinated by the completely alien world of the film and even moved by how different it was from the world I knew. Perhaps it was Jodie Foster's character who really got to me- she was only a few years older in the film than I was when I saw it, yet she wasn't acting like a kid at all. Of course, my parents never found out I watched this...

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN- my dad brought this home one night when I was in middle school, telling me how funny it was. And boy, was he right. I hadn't yet seen Whale's versions of FRANKENSTEIN, but I'd absorbed enough to get most of the jokes, yet what really struck me was that the movie was in black and white. At the time, I still associated black and white with old movies, yet here was a movie that starred people I recognized, only it wasn't in color. Then a realization came to me- it was black and white FOR A REASON. Mel Brooks (who I already knew because of SPACEBALLS) made a conscious decision to shoot the movie that way. That's when I first became conscious of the role of the director as someone who makes decisions as to how a movie is made. And my interest in filmmaking and filmmakers has only grown from there.

JURASSIC PARK- I enjoyed watching movies on video when I was younger, but it wasn't until I got to high school that I went to the theatre regularly. I suppose I have my friend Matt to thank, since we almost always went together. Our first movie was UNFORGIVEN, but the one that really got me hooked on going to the theatre was JURASSIC PARK. We saw it on opening day, and were blown away by the spectacle of the thing. I picked up on the moments of hokeyness, but I didn't care- these were dinosaurs, as big as life, as real as I'd ever seen them. "Again! Again!" we cheered when it was over. We must've watched it a dozen times when it came to the local discount theatre.

PULP FICTION- once again, the right movie at the right time for a developing movie lover. I'd never seen anything like this- wacked-out chronology, riffing dialogue, violent scenes that were also funny, etc. As scruffy and cool as JURASSIC PARK was spectacular, my friends and I got caught up in the PULP phenomenon with a vengeance. Quentin was a hero to us. We even started writing a PULP remake populated completely by idiots. For the first time, the idea of making a movie became an attainable goal to me. And naturally, Tarantino's film-drunk interviews led me off the Hollywood path into independent and even foreign cinema, beginning with...

BETTY BLUE- of course, it's hard for a newcomer to foreign film to know where to begin. So many unfamiliar, hard-to-pronounce names on the shelves. But being a high schooler, BETTY BLUE had something we wanted to see. "Check this out dude," said the guy at the video store. "There's all kinds of sex in this one." The guy wasn't lying, and the rest of the movie was interesting enough that I didn't bother fast-forwarding to the next sex scene despite the occasionally difficulty with subtitles. Eventually, the subtitles got easier, and I found slightly more high-minded reasons to watch foreign films. Once I'd plowed through the filmography of Beatrice Dalle, that is.

ANNIE HALL- all of the films I've listed up until this point took me to new places, but what I loved about ANNIE HALL was how much I saw of myself in it, even when I was sixteen. Most guys I saw in movies were smooth and cool with women, but Alvy was as nervous and uncertain as I was at the time. And Annie made an impression on me too, not some bikini bimbo who attracts men with her body, but a daffy, funny woman who you love for who she is (admittedly, Diane Keaton was still easy on the eyes, but not in a show-offy way). I must've watched this every week in the summer between my junior and senior years and recommended it to all my friends- some of whom gave me odd looks, as this wasn't so long after the Woody/Mia scandal.

BELLE DE JOUR- another foreign film I saw primarily for the T&A factor, I actually made the trip up to Cleveland with some friends to see it in the theatre during the summer after graduation. I mean, a housewife who secretly works as a prostitute- cheesecake city, right? Well, no. But while they grumbled all the way home, I had fallen in love. Not only with Deneuve, not just the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen in a movie but also the most enchanting screen presence, but with the movie itself. In retrospect, what really got to me after that first viewing was the idea that a film didn't simply have to deal with external action or adventure, but could also explore private fantasies and dreams. Even today, BELLE DE JOUR remains my favorite film.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY- way back when, I tended to trust my initial impression of a film to the extent where if I wasn't especially keen on it I wouldn't watch it again. Such was the case with 2001, which I'd originally caught on video back in high school. But during my first year of college, I saw a review of it in that stated the importance of seeing it on the big screen. I was a bit dubious- watching at home is as good as the theatre, I thought- but I went anyway, to give it a second chance. Sure enough, the review was right- what was weird and silly in the confines of my living room was thrilling, ambitious, and breathtakingly big in the theatre. Since then, I've watched as much as possible on the big screen.

THE NEW WORLD- my most major filmgoing experience in the last decade. Sure, there have been some masterpieces during that time, even some I've been hopelessly obsessed with (AFTER LIFE, WAKING LIFE, 8 WOMEN). But nothing has compared to THE NEW WORLD. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt like I was bearing witness to the opening of one of the great classics of the cinema. Truly transcendent cinema is rare, and to be valued, and I will always cherish my first experience of THE NEW WORLD.

What about you folks? Any moviegoing experiences that stick out in your minds?

The Halftime Show

I’m working on the 2005-in-review article, honest. Consider this a warm-up.

1. DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY- quite possibly the most joyous chronicle of an Event since WOODSTOCK 36 years ago. Although this film- and this Event for that matter- lacks the logistical and pop-culture magnitude of the Woodstock fest, it fascinates in its own right by introducing all sorts of people whose lives have been touched by the Block Party. Chappelle, a genial and appreciative master of ceremonies, clearly cares for those who love him, and the Block Party is about and for these people- the artists who perform, the fans who made the trip, the locals who live in the neighborhood. Perhaps director Michel Gondry’s greatest achievement, however, is his invigorating use of editing to examine the event from all angles- onstage and backstage, preparation and performance, past and present.

2. THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU- Cristi Puiu’s harrowing odyssey through the Romanian medical establishment is hard to watch at times, but it’s also vital cinema. What makes the film feel like a gut punch is that it doesn’t demonize the doctors who are hesitant to treat Lazarescu- sure, it’s comforting to think that every patient should be treated with empathy, but if medical professionals had an emotional stake in every patient the job would be too difficult to bear. And so Lazarescu is carried from hospital to hospital, growing progressively worse, until the idea of "death with dignity," much less a miracle cure, seems the cruelest joke of all.

3. TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY- to quote the film, "because it’s funny. Isn’t that enough?" It is for me, at least until I get a chance to see it again. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon set a new standard for bickering costars in this, Michael Winterbottom’s mockumentary chronicle of his abortive attempts to adapt the notoriously "unadaptable" novel. As light and clever as his previous film, 9 SONGS was turgid and listless.

4. L’ENFANT- not quite first-rate Dardenne brothers, but no matter. The film’s boldest gambit is its focus on Bruno, an opportunist and a nigh-unlikable young man who would sell his newborn child for a sack full of Euros without so much as batting an eye. The Dardennes wisely realize that Bruno has to be a tough nut to crack in order for his redemption to mean anything, so softening him or justifying his actions would drain the film of much of its impact.

5. BRICK- in the year’s best filmmaking debut to date, director Rian Johnson throws together two unlikely bedfellows (the pulpy detective thriller and the high-school drama) and the result is a credit to both genres. In case there was any doubt, this film makes it official- Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the best American actor of his generation.

6. BUBBLE- Steven Soderbergh’s experiment in hi-def filmmaking (and distribution) is a low-key but effective portrait of lives that exist far away even from Hollywood’s conception of "small-town America." Instead of making his characters into rubes worthy of derision, he is generally curious about them and their milieu, in which hard work is a fact of life and role of religion in everyday life goes unquestioned. Even the violent turn the film takes is handled with an understated, plainspoken grace.

7. THE PROPOSITION- it’s the flies I remember most. The film’s Australia is swarming with them, crawling over the faces of natives and recent settlers alike. Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave ambitiously attempt to explode practically every genre convention- moral codes, filial loyalty, the encroachment of civilization- and in doing so creates the Western to end all Westerns, though it’s set Down Under. Because honestly, where can the genre go from here?

8. UNITED 93- Too soon? Hardly. While this film is most effective in its first hour, which re-creates in painstaking detail (mostly from the perspective of various air traffic control stations) how things went wrong on 9/11, the entire film resolutely avoids exploiting the tragedy for cheap drama. Director Paul Greengrass wisely doesn’t politicize the events of September 11, 2001, and he avoids falling into the ELEPHANT trap by creating a sense of immediacy, as if placing us back on that fateful day, aghast at what we see, unsure of what lies ahead.

9. MANDERLAY- yes, it lacks the freshness of DOGVILLE, to say nothing of the previous film’s infinitely rich allegorical universe, but warmed-over Von Trier is still more potent than just about anything else out there.

10. NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD- Neil Young. Jonathan Demme. Two great tastes that taste great together.

And the worst…

BATTLE IN HEAVEN- thank you, Carlos Reygadas, for demonstrating once and for all the difference between artsy and artful. I could care less that you want your movie- with shots the Mexican flag being raised or lowered and scenes of a hot chick having sex with a fat dude- to take on deeper allegorical meaning. If you can’t make the onscreen action work of its own accord, then any deeper meaning it might have in your mind won’t amount to a damn thing.