Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best of the 2000s

I guess it took me long enough, but now that New Year's is nearly upon us and I've gone through a number of Top 50 lists for previous decades, I couldn't hold off any longer and yielded to pressure to participate in the 'Best of the Aughties' list-making frenzy. The two top spots in my list are pretty much interchangeable: both brilliant variations on the themes that have run through Lynch's career, and both focusing on issues of gender and cinematic representation. Having recently re-watched both films, it's not so much a question of finding one film better than the other, but more the issue that Inland Empire can only be accessed as a companion piece to Mulholland Dr., whereas the latter makes sense (more or less) on its own.

Looking down the rest of the list, it would seem that most choices reflect a sustained and tragic sense of loss, with life, love, and family all slipping away on the "dismal tide" that was emphasized so eloquently in the Zeitgeist-channeling favorite No Country for Old Men. Even the comedies (Adaptation., Ratatouille, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) seem marked by their poignant sense of melancholy that overshadows their technical virtuosity and moments of joyous abandon, while spectacular action movies like Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon never let us forget that we are watching stories of violence, betrayal, and doomed lovers.

Hard to say whether themes such as these truly typify that arbitrary ten-year period we now haltingly call 'the aughties'. Whether it's all post-9/11 malaise, a bad case of the George W. Bush blues, or the result of our growing awareness that ecological, geographical and financial systems all seem to be crumbling as we watch, the decade has in any case produced a large number of stunning films, to which the following list aims to testify. And what better way to testify to these strange times than with the stunning end credits of Inland Empire?

1. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
2. Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
3. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
4. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
5. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)
6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2003)
7. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
8. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
9. Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Spike Jonze, 2004)
11. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)
12. Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
13. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
14. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
15. The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel Coen, 2001)
16. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
17. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/2004)
18. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
19. Keane (Lodge Kerrigan, 2004)
20. No Country For Old Men (Joel Coen, 2007)
21. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
22. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
23. About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)
24. Stevie (Steve James, 2002)
25. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2006)
26. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)
27. Save The Green Planet (Jun-hwan Jeong, 2003)
28. The Devil's Rejects (Rob Zombie, 2004)
29. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
30. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
31. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2004)
32. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
33. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chan-wook Park, 2005)
34. Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
35. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
36. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2004)
37. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
38. Let The Right One In (Thomas Alfredson, 2008)
39. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
40. Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney, 2005)
41. Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)
42. 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007)
43. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
44. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
45. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007)
46. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2008)
47. The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004)
48. Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
49. Observe And Report (Jody Hill, 2009)
50. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

AVATAR: white heroes and noble savages

With all that's already been said by others on Avatar, it seems a bit redundant to chime in on the phenomenon at this point. So let me respond to the ongoing phenomenon by linking to some of the most interesting perspectives I've come across so far:

  • At io9, Annalee Lewitz approaches it from what I perceive to be its most obvious (and most problematic) aspect, which is race. She argues very convincingly that Avatar falls neatly into a genre of films about white guilt, in which she lists other notable examples such as Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Dune. In these films, the focus lies strongly on a situation "where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member."

  • Acephalous is beautiful when he's angry, swinging for the rafters with his blog post title alone: "Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist." In a remarkably concise bit of sharply observed analysis, he first explains that the mercenaries doing the imperialist company's dirty work in the film do not constitute an attack on the US military (as right-wing critics of the film have alleged), but "a perversion of the military" that clearly references 'security companies' like the infamous Blackwater. Jake Sully is an example of a real (i.e. non-mercenary) soldier, who lost his legs in a legitimate military conflict, as is, I might add, Michelle Rodriguez's character, who "didn't sign up for this shit." The piece then moves on swiftly to Avatar's race problem, which Acephalous condemns across the board:
    The film argues that once a white person truly and deeply understands the non-white experience, he becomes an unstoppable combination of non-white primitivism and white rationalism which is exactly what happens. In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible ... and those assumptions are racist.

  • Of the three different takes offered by the staff at The House Next Door, Ali Arakan's full review provides the most convincing explanation of the film's strengths and weaknesses, eloquently likening the experience of watching the film to "staring at an “Astounding Science Fiction” cover for eight hours while somebody drips LSD on your eyeballs." He manages to point out the good stuff on the screen, like the "exceptionally expressive features" of the Na'vi and the spectacular vistas on display throughout, with fauna that is "silly, but rather splendid." But in spite of these strengths, one of the main problems with the film I find myself agreeing with is simply that Cameron's ideas are half baked: Avatar is "a sumptuous feast for the eyes that’s as dumb as a rock. Then again, you don’t go to Hooters for the food."

  • Gerry Canavan provides his own terrific roundup of quotes and links related to the film, with an outstanding blog post that moves swiftly through its racial, gender, and religious problems before developing an interesting perspective on Avatar's relationship to genre, pointing out that it uncomfortably straddles the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy: "by the end of the film any pretense of scientific plausibility or internal logical coherence has been abandoned altogether: telepathy and transmigration of souls are real, MechWarriors pull Bowie knives from their belts, and not even gravity seems to work anymore."

  • Of the many straightforward film reviews out there, Walter Chaw's review is -unsurprisingly- the most convincing and the most edifying, opening his piece with a memorable shot across the bow of the SS Fanboy by identifying the film correctly as "a morally, historically, socially, and politically childish amalgam of Pocahontas and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest." If you don't believe him, watch this fake trailer.

  • The Christian right also chimes in on the film over at MovieLand, finding fault with the film's "abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes goddess worship and the destruction of the human race." I guess there are any number of roads that lead to disliking Avatar.

  • As for the issue of Avatar being a kind of open text, a Rorschach blot in which we see whatever we want to see, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times editorializes further on her original review by suggesting -somewhat redundantly- that we tend to see our own views reflected in whatever text we're talking about. She claims to find ideological readings of films unproductive, which is a rather tricky point to make here. But she's right in pointing out "that movies are filled with contradictions," and that this dialectical nature of capitalist products such as this may be the thing that we're observing in all the ongoing arguments on Avatar.

  • Finally, just to pre-empt the inevitable 'why spend so much time thinking/talking/writing about a movie?' response, allow me to refer you to this outstanding user comment to the io9 article on race listed above: 'Of all the varieties of irritating comment out there, the absolute most annoying has to be “Why can’t you just watch the movie for what it is??? Why can’t you just enjoy it? Why do you have to analyze it???”'

  • Update:About a month after the general wave of blog postings and magazine articles that followed the general release of AVATAR, Slavoj Žižek chimed in as well with a short article in The New Statesman. Many of the customary Žižekian snark on the film's obvious "brutal racist undertones" rang familiar by that time, but the Slovenian theorist makes a strong connection to the real-world political situation of the Indian Dongri Kondh people, which is uncannily similar to the fictitious plight of the Na'Vi.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best of the 1960s

While continuing to postpone the inevitable, I find myself moving ever further backward in time with today's new post. I feel I am actually getting closer to a final Best of the 2000s list, as several important questions are resolved (like whether to put Eastern Promises ahead of A History of Violence, or vice versa). After this morning I do at least know for sure that Avatar isn't going to make the cut - but more on that later. At any rate, the number one choice for the 1960s was probably the easiest of any decade for me, as John Frankenheimer's glorious Seconds is one of those films that effortlessly leaps to the top of any list. I screened it for a large group of undergrad students last year, and was pleased to note that it was extremely well received, seemingly making as much sense to today's kids in their early twenties as it still does to me, and that it has lost none of its ability to creep its audience out.

1. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
2. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
3. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
4. Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
8. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
9. Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
10. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
11. In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967)
12. Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
13. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
14. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Hill, 1967)
15. The Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964)
16. Fail-Safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964)
17. West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961)
18. The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
19. The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)
20. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1967)
21. Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
22. Carnival of Souls (Frank Harvey, 1962)
23. Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)
24. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
25. Hud (Martin Ritt, ]1963)
26. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
27. From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963)
28. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
29. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
30. Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)
31. Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964)
32. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)
33. The Battle of Algiers (Guillermo Pontecorvo, 1965)
34. Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966)
35. One, Two, Three! (Billy Wilder, 1961)
36. Pretty Poison (Noel Black, 1968)
37. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
38. Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)
39. A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1963)
40. A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinneman, 1966)
42. Bob Dylan - Dont Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)
40. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
43. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (Geronimi, Luske & Reitherman 1961)
44. The Misfits (John Huston, 1961)
45. The Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Buñuel, 1964)
46. Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)
47. The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder, 1966)
48. Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
49. Faster, Pussycat... Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer, 1965)
50. The Fall of the House of Usher (Roger Corman, 1960)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tarantino and Food

Revisiting a whole bunch of Tarantino films in the last few weeks in tandem with the home video release of Inglourious Basterds, I was struck once again by the crucial role food has played in his movies throughout his career. The diverse ways in which he has been able to incorporate rituals of eating, ordering and preparing food got me thinking about putting together a selection of clips from his body of work that mirror each other in interesting ways. So I spent an afternoon going through his movies, hunting down moments that seemed to fit together, sometimes in very obvious ways, and sometimes (hopefully) in less obvious ones. Anyway, here's the result.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Best of the 1970s

Now that those list-making juices are flowing, why not move ahead (or rather: backward) and release my rankings for another movie decade. I guess we can describe this as a perverse form of procrastination, as the endless but somehow more manageable task of putting together Top 10 lists for earlier decades should ultimately serve as some kind of preparation for the inevitable '00s list. Simultaneously, it's an easy way out, as I labored over lists like these as part of a larger project I participated in at an online film forum I frequent.

While looking over this list for publication here, I started having second thoughts on my unconventional choice for number one, and was momentarily tempted to move the more widely established classic The Godfather Part II up to the top spot. But then I revisited the "logic scene" from Kaspar Hauser, and immediately concluded that director Werner Herzog's genius in casting the extraordinary Bruno S. as the film's lead and the heartbreaking tenderness with which his character is presented simply transcends the usual criteria for film criticism, and deserves all the recognition it can get.

1. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog, 1974)
2. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
3. Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)
4. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
5. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
6. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
7. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
8. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
9. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
10. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
11. Le Fantome de la Liberté (Luis Buñuel, 1974)
12. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
13. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
14. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
15. Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)
16. Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)
17. Gimme Shelter (David Maysles, 1970)
18. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
19. All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
20. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
21. The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)
22. Cet Obscur Objet du Désir (Luis Buñuel, 1977)
23. Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
24. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
25. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
26. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)
27. Lenny (Bob Fosse, 1974)
28. The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1974)
29. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)
30. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
31. Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974)
32. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
33. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
34. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
35. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
36. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
37. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
38. The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
39. Images (Robert Altman, 1972)
40. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1979)
41. Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
42. Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1976)
43. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
44. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
45. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
46. Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977)
47. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)
48. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
49. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)
50. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

Lists, lists, lists...

While continuing to resist the ubiquitous urge to compile my own Best Films of the '00s List, I find myself somehow both drawn to and repelled by other people's lists as they are published all over the place, with more of them showing up literally every day. I remember major Best of the Decade lists being published in 1990 and 2000, and the feeling they gave me that the results were somehow official: Raging Bull was the best film of the 1980s, and Pulp Fiction was the best film of the 1990s.

But now, with the radical proliferation of media, news outlets, and opinions in general, the fundamentally historiographical exercise of list-making seems to have become little more than a social act that emphasizes its own discursive character: the multitude of lists seem to be responding to each other in acts of continuous one-upmanship. As ever, the exercise is more telling about our present than it is about the past decade, our lists of favorite movies revealing more about who we are as we are writing them down than about those movies we're ranking.

So while I continue to ponder my own choices from the past ten years, here are my own choices from the small screen, which in many ways eclipsed the cinema as a complex, artistically articulate and versatile medium in the '00s.

1. The Wire (best season: IV)
2. Curb Your Enthusiasm (best season: VII)
3. The Sopranos (best season: VI)
4. Freaks and Geeks
5. Deadwood (best season: III)
6. The Office (US) (best season: II)
7. Breaking Bad (best season: II)
8. Extras (best season: II)
9. The Shield (best season: V)
10. Mad Men (best season: I)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More Dark Knight parody: "Key of Awesome"

Somebody up there clearly wants me to keep updating my blog: now that I recently indicated that my update-finger starts a-twitchin' as soon as I come across a fresh Dark Knight analysis and/or parody, they seem to be popping up all over the place. This one is a spot-on music video parody that combines some astutely observed critical points on the film with the usual kind of silly parody (discovered via Jim Emerson).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Best of the 1980s

With all the 'best-of-the-'00s' lists going around, I find myself woefully ill-equipped to compare recent favorites like Synecdoche, New York or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans to what are to my mind well-established masterpieces such as Mulholland Dr. or Adaptation. Even the question which Tarantino film I would consider his best of the past decade seems to me all but unanswerable.

But since it's fun to waste one's time on the relative merits of individual films within fairly arbitrary limitations, I did put together a Top 50 for a decade that gets a bad rap, but that actually yielded a large number of fantastic films. So here's my list for the decade that was the 80s, headed up by what I consider not only the sharpest, most brilliantly observed film of the decade, but also the one that seems to me the most enduringly relevant to us today.

1. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)
2. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)
3. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
4. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)
5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Miller, 1981)
6. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
7. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)
8. My Dinner with André (Malle, 1981)
9. The Elephant Man (Lynch, 1980)
10. The Thing (Carpenter, 1982)
11. This Is Spinal Tap (Reiner, 1984)
12. RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987)
13. Fitzcarraldo (Herzog, 1982)
14. Fanny & Alexander (Bergman, 1982)
15. The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986)
16. Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)
17. The Verdict (Lumet, 1982)
18. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)
19. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)
20. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
21. Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983)
22. Hannah and Her Sisters (Allen, 1986)
23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg, 1984)
24. Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch, 1984)
25. The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
26. Do The Right Thing (Lee, 1989)
27. Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (Demme, 1984)
28. Matewan (Sayles, 1987)
29. Day of the Dead (Romero, 1985)
30. After Hours (Scorsese, 1985)
31. Jean de Florette (Berri, 1987)
32. Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)
33. Pee-wee's Big Adventure (Burton, 1985)
34. The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985)
35. Commando (Lester, 1985)
36. Runaway Train (Konchalovsky, 1986)
37. Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
38. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hughes, 1986)
39. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
40. Little Shop of Horrors (Oz, 1986)
41. Big Trouble in Little China (Carpenter, 1986)
42. Tin Men (Levinson, 1987)
43. Cobra Verde (Herzog, 1987)
44. Repo Man (Cox, 1984)
45. Broadcast News (Brooks, 1987)
46. Evil Dead II (Raimi, 1987)
47. Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987)
48. Midnight Run (Brest, 1988)
49. When Harry Met Sally... (Reiner, 1989)
50. Road House (Herrington, 1989)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Agents of Chaos

Once again, a Dark Knight-related YouTube clip pushes me towards an eternally-overdue blog update. This time it's a new video essay by Film Freak Central reviewer Jefferson Robins, whose Agents of Chaos brings an entirely new perspective to the film characters that came closest to capturing a particular contemporary Zeitgeist.