Thursday, December 31, 2009

It's here.

Top Ten 2009

1) A Serious Man (Coen)
2) The Limits of Control (Jarmusch)
3) Munyurangabo (Chung)
4) Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino) 
5) Moon (Jones)
6/7) Still Walking/Summer Hours (Koreeda/Assayas)
8/9) Ponyo/Up (Miyazaki/Docter)
10) Drag Me to Hell (Raimi)

Honorable: Adventureland, Beeswax, The Big Community, Food Inc., The Hurt Locker, Julie & Julia, Public Enemies, Sugar, Timecrimes, Two Lovers, Visioneers, The Yes Men Fix the World

And my favorite non-2009, non-2008 releases that I caught on DVD for the first time this year:
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes)
In a Lonely Place (Ray)
La moustache (Carrere)
F For Fake (Welles)
Dawn of the Dead (Romero)
The Plumber (Weir)
Blast of Silence (Baron)
Lancelot du Lac (Bresson)
The Seventh Continent (Haneke)
Dear Wendy (Vinterberg)
It Happened One Night (Capra)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tidying up for the new year.

Brandon, I think Emerson already gave you your whipping.  I may eventually see Avatar, but I have low expectations despite your enthusiasms.

Unrelated, I just re-watched Pulp Fiction for the first time in at least ten years.  

I also watched The Happening.  I couldn't help myself.  I knew I had to see it eventually.  Why not treat myself on Christmas Eve?

And you know what's funny?

Pulp Fiction is generally good.

The Happening is generally bad.

But, they both have something in common.  As "pure" auteur pics, they both share the same weakness.  

All of the dialogue sounds like it may as well be coming out of the same mouth.  There are lots of characters but each one of them speaks strictly on behalf of their creator, not on behalf of themselves.

Tarantino seems to have grown out of this bad habit (though he hasn't shaken it completely).  Shyamalan seems to be stuck in a rut.  He knows how to frame an effective shot and structure a story appropriately, but his personality gets in the way.  If anyone gives him money to make another film (which is doubtful at the moment), I really hope that they require him to shoot someone else's script.  He's an extremely competent and talented director with a headful of muddled narratives.

Dialogue and stupid story aside, The Happening is a bold and brilliant failure.  It's not a stupid movie in the same class as average stupid movies for the masses.  Any film that attempts to make wind and trees and bees disappearing scary and has a lame science teacher hero has already beaten almost all of the fart jokes of the year combined.  The Happening is a noble failure.

Christmas day was fun.  I had the sniffles through the day, but generally felt fine.  The sweetness of the world had arrived.  I had only to enjoy it.  And I did.

Maybe a bit too much.  

The night ended in a haze of Imported Polish potato vodka courtesy of brother Peter.

The next morning, I found that Santa had left me a nasty little day-after-Christmas-cold.  I felt crappy, but went to work anyhow.  After getting some work done, I spent the last few hours of my shift recuperating on a couch with medicinial TCM before my eyes.  While on that blessed couch, I saw my first ever Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes film.  Interestingly enough, my first Holmes film was the last one that this marvelous duo would ever make.  Evidently, Rathbone wanted to spend the rest of his career being in awful horror pictures instead.

The film was Dressed to Kill and it was an absolute delight, just the sort of thing that my sick and grumpy soul needed to make me feel better.  The mystery involved three music boxes worth killing for and a femme fatale to die for.  I especially loved the whole tobacco sub-plot and also Watson quacking like a duck to console a traumatized little girl.

Jason, your boy may be too old or too cool for these Holmes movies, but I say give them a try.  I plan on eventually watching them all with my girls.  While I'm writing to you, specifically, Jason, how many times do I have to beg you to start your own movie blog?  2010 is a good year to start.  One sentence per movie watched.  That's all I'm asking.  It's cheaper and more satisfying than collecting Star Wars merchandise.  

Instead of getting better, by Monday the cold had moved down to my chest and I was starting to cough up foul colored gunk.  I spent the day reading Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia (which would make a great film!)

Tuesday, I called in sick.  I caught up on a couple of borrowed films and a third that I regret buying for a few dollars at Hollywood video.

Knife In the Water is good at what it is, but I mostly don't care.  I'm a geek and relate to geeks.  Whether I like it or not, Synechdoche, New York was made for me.  Knife In the Water was not.  I can't relate to "manly" men trying to out-man each other.  I can't even enjoy watching how stupid this contest is.  I have firsthand geek knowledge that this is stupid painful behavior on the part of non-geeks that only ever hurts geeks.  I'm rambling and not really discussing the feature.  Oh well.  There is a knife in the water.  At least we get what we're promised.

F For Fake delivers the geek goods.  I loved it.  Maybe more on it later.

Spielberg's The War of the Worlds is a huge disappointment.  It works as a monster/chase movie with little to no science fiction premise to back it up.  If that's all I'm getting, I'd rather watch Carpenter's The Thing a few more times.  There is some family dynamics here, but it's only the same Spielberg broken family learning to love and live through the cracks.  And you know what?  It doesn't even work as a monster/chase movie.  I think that the only SF element here is that Cruise and Fanning are immortal and invincible, preventing any audience relatability.  There are no scares or thrills when you can't suffer even the possibility of a bad end.

That's it.  Those are the last six films seen in the calendar year 2009, bringing my watched total to around 200.  And I've written about every one of them.  It's been fun.    

Top ten tomorrow.

See you in 2010.  

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pre-list list


Counting repeat viewings, but not counting short films, I count 195 as the number of feature films I watched in 2009.  58 of those were seen in a theatre.  About 40 films qualify as 2009 releases, more or less depending on how one determines these things.

Despite my Cornell time, I didn't watch significantly more films this year than last year.  The number was 185 films in 2008.  The big difference was that I saw a lot more films at the cinema this year instead of home on DVD.  And the other huge difference is that I spent time writing about each one this year.
My upcoming "best of" 2009 list isn't set in stone.  I'm looking forward to catching up on films I missed, either because they never played here (35 Shots of Rum, The Headless Woman, The Sun) or because I was too busy to see them (The Box, Where the Wild Things Are, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline).  I probably would have made it to those last three or four if Mildred was 14 instead of 7, but I'm definitely not rushing anything.  She's growing up too fast already.  I'm glad that she loved Ponyo so much, both her and the film brimming with wonder. 

There are also current "awards-style" films like Invictus, Up In the Air, and The Road that I'd like to eventually see.

2009 seems like a decent year in film.  I need to see two Herzog films before I can know for sure.  It might end up being the best year of the decade.  I like Herzog documentaries.  I adore Herzog narratives.  And we got two this year.  

I had the special experience of working at Cornell.  What made the year great, though, wasn't the quality or the quantity of the films released or seen.  The best part of this film year was maintaining this stupid blog and being able to read yours.  It's been a lot of fun.  

Before my top ten list, here is my top ten UNSEEN films of 2009, ranked according to my burning desire to see each one.

1) My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done
2) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
3) Birdsong
4) Police, Adjective
5) 24 City
6) Bright Star
7/8) Fantastic Mr. Fox/Where the Wild Things Are
9) The White Ribbon
10) The Sun 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ten Years

Decade, alphabetically

Appaloosa (2008)
Ashes of Time Redux (2008)
La moustache (2005)
Munyurangabo (2007)
The New World (2005)
No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
A Serious Man (2009)
There Will Be Blood (2007)

If some lunatic cinephile demigod appeared to me in a vision and threatened celluloid annihilation if I did not choose ten and only ten films from the last ten years that were the only films that I'd ever be able to watch again from this decade, the above list is what I'd choose.

It might change tomorrow, but it is what I'd choose today.

I'm not arguing that these are the "best" films or the most important ones.  These are the films that I've thought about the most and currently mean the most to me.  It's a totally subjective list meant to please me and only me.

The list is a strange one, I know, not least because I don't include a single film from the first five years of this decade.  What kind of decade consists of only five years?  Well, that's how I experienced the decade.  I missed out on most of the critical darlings, foreign and arthouse, from those first five years and I just haven't caught up yet.  I probably won't ever catch up, but I do have the TSPDT 250 list as a starting guide to what I'm missing.  Then again, something like Dear Wendy was almost universally reviled by critics yet just barely missed placing a spot on my list of ten above.  Of course, ten is a stupid number, but it's the traditional number and I'm sticking with it.

The films I picked:

Appaloosa is a small masterpiece.  I'm convinced.  I could name any scene, but the one that pops into my head right now is the shootout in the street.  There's no rolling or running, dodging or ducking.  Only men standing.  Repeatedly firing lead at one another until someone falls down.  The editing is fast and tight.  We get a shot of someone firing a pistol.  We get a shot of a man falling down with a bullet inside of him.  Oh, the simple pleasures.

The Coens win by earning two spots on the list.  While others play it safe with their moralizing, the Coens run roughshod through Ecclesiastes, leaving us to feel the questions.  No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man are two towers of ancient morality not disguised as but perfectly achieved and expressed as a thriller and a domestic drama respectively.  The Coens are among those happy few who can have their cake and eat it, too.

Including Burn After Reading, the Coens are on a winning streak at the moment.  We still have the Chabon project and True Grit yet to come!

Ashes of Time Redux, The New World, and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon all probably qualify as romantic pictures.  I didn't know I was such a softie until I made this list, but I do have a mushy core.  Strike that.  These are not soft easy films.  These are hard films with sharp edges.  They will cut you.  If they don't hurt and you don't bleed, you probably have no life or love left in you.  These three films are each brilliant, each building up love as difficult but precious rather than tearing it down and cheapening it like most films do.  

In the Mood For Love and 2046 are both hovering around the boundaries of this list, but I prefer Ashes of Time.

Ashes of Time is a bit of a cheat since the film was first released in 1994.  Without having seen the original cut, I have to argue that the Redux is a different film from the original in that any new cut of a film produces an entirely new and different film.  The Redux belongs to 2008, not 1994.

A Scanner Darkly really captures the spirit of Phil Dick's work.  And Dick's spirit is one of the most important of the last century, with us still today more than ever.  I'd love to see Linklater direct a Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said adaptation.  It would be unlike anything he's done before, but I think that he's the most qualified to do it.  As an aside, now that I'm thinking about it, maybe Kaufman could stop navel-gazing and try an Ubik adaptation as his second directorial project.

La moustache haunts me.  I don't know why.  Maybe it plays perfectly to my own thoughts and fears about identity and relationships.  Maybe I'm just amazed by how it works as a thriller.  

Munyurangabo hits every right note.  The domestic scenes are the heart of the film, but it's the last twenty minutes or so that will take your breath away.  What is amazing is that the film achieves this broad shift in emphasis so organically.

There Will Be Blood.  I still haven't watched it on DVD, but I saw it three times at the cinema.  There's no question that I would immediately go three more times if it re-opened for a one week run in Binghamton.  It and The New World struggle in my mind for the top spot on this list with all of the others swimming around each other below these two titans.  I decided not to even try and rank them.  So alphabetical.

I'm glad that I don't really have to limit myself to rewatching only ten films.  I get to keep my copy of King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters and my shelf of Pixar magic.  

These exercises may be mostly meaningless, but they are fun.  And there is no denying that we each have our own sub-canons alongside and maybe against the wider critical consensus.  I know that there are still dozens, if not hundreds, of films that I would need to see for this to be a "fair" list, but if I wait until I've seen all of these films that I "should" see, then I'll have missed all of the list-making fun. Everyone seems to believe that the decade is over.  I need to review and evaluate the decade as I've experienced it because now, not later, is the time to give an account.

So, the ten above.  I'm happy with them.  I could have opened up the list to 25 or 75, but it was more fun narrowing down to what I feel are absolutely "my essentials."

Happy decade.

P.S. Brandon, you'll be happy to know that 2007 leads the pack with four titles!

Friday, December 18, 2009

No posts

Brandon, I just checked. Your blog has no new posts since Fantastic Mr. Fox. Maybe IT is blocking you somehow. Give me a call if you think you're going to the 10:15 showing, either tonight or tomorrow night.

Peace and goodwill. Later.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A useful hypocrisy

There are some great little moments in In the Loop, but not enough to save it from itself.  As far as I can tell, my problem with the film is that I couldn't find an access point.  Not a single character is likable and the entire situation is admittedly stupid.  It's supposed to be satire, but it doesn't feel funny.  Just sad and oppressive.  

Full disclosure: I was tired and a bit cranky when I watchd it. Maybe I didn't give it a fair chance, but I don't care.

I was still tired and cranky when this week's student films were screened.  That didn't stop me from loving one of them and liking the others.

There were four "intermediate" student films.

You Never Know is a fun time-travel superhero film made in the same loving spirit that my friend Nick directed the Parthe films of our youth.  It's not great, but I smiled through most of it.

The Big Community is the film I loved.  It is a sweet homage to the Big Sleep and general hard-boiled tropes while simultaneously being a nice family film about intergenerational relationships.  I talked with the director afterward.  He promised to send me a DVD copy, so hopefully you'll be able to see it, Brandon.

Rethinking Tragedy: Creative Solutions to Conflict in the Caucuses was the only dud.  It's too bad because I think that the professor's ideas were interesting and worthy of a better presentation.

Jacob's Birthday features a boy being raped on his 16th birthday.  The story seems a bit too deterministic in its plotting, but the direction is confident and the acting is solid enough.  And the homosexual angst is obviously heartfelt, adding to the sincerity of the pain envisioned and enacted.

There were also seven animated films, but nothing really special.  The music video for Poison is only so-so, but I'll single it out as the best of the bunch because the song is catchy and the tune has popped into my head more than a few times already since Sunday.

The program was a nice way of ending my ushering career.  It was a fun experience.  I'm going to miss doing the job, but it will be fantastic to not have to leave my family anymore.  I really began to regret committing to the entire semester.  I had fun, but it really wasn't worth spending so much time away from my family.  If only I could quit my regular job and get paid the same to work as full-time usher.  Oh well.

I'm all caught up again now with writing.  I think I'm going to take a break for a week or so.  I'll be back after Christmas with some sort of year-end post.

You need to get that new computer  Brandon.  It's not quite as fun doing this alone.    

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Time for love

Love is all a matter of timing.

Those are Mr. Chow's words to himaelf in 2046.  I'm not sure that he even believes them.  It's a comfortable lie.

2046 is an excellent sequel/companion to In the Mood for Love.  The ideas in it are also clearly in dialogue with both Ashes of Time and My Blueberry Nights, the other two Wong films that I have seen.  I am ignorant of any other filmmaker who is currently exploring romantic love at this level of depth and committment in such an adult way.  Rohmer comes to mind, but he's at the end of his career now.

Out of Sight is a cute little heist romance that has fun with the notion of love being a matter of timing.  Easy to watch and easy to like, the film is pretty perfect at being the trifle that it is.

Junebug is comparable in its ambitions to Still Walking.  Junebug fails by comparison as it teetertotters along the borders of melodrama.  This would be okay if the characters were fully established, but I feel like they are rather players in a grand directorial joke instead of real human beings.

Both brother characters seem underdeveloped, working as fleshed out stereotypes instead of being their own men.  Overall, I feel lukewarm toward the film, but I'm glad for more Southern stories on screen.  Also, the one scene where Johnny is trying and failing to tape the meerkats transcends the rest of this film and most other films like this.  It's just a beautiful moment of truth.  Love is all a matter of timing.

Those are three of the films you let me borrow.  I have to wonder if you recognized the common themes when you gave them to me or if it was just a happy accident.

I also watched Two Lovers.  It wasn't nearly as awful as I was prepared for it to be.  It is actually quite good, among the best American films of this year that I've seen.  Which may not be saying much with competition like Transformers 2 and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Like the films you loaned me, Two Lovers is about love and timing.  And it mostly succeeds in its modest attempt to tackle such important ideas without trying to provide answers.  Just feel the questions.     

Some of the writing is poor (only in the sense that shortcuts are taken), but the story is solid and the three main performances are all top-notch.  I hope that Pheonix changes his mind about his retirement.  

Gray is definitely a director to watch.  I'm excited to see what he does in the future and hope to get around to checking out his past films. 

I also mostly rewatched Julie and Julia at home with Abby.  I say mostly because i walked out a few times to do things and i fell asleep before the end.  Like Out of Sight, it is a trifle and it likewise holds its own by being more fun than it has any right to be. 

Finally, Munyurangabo is a great film. I highly recommend it.  I'm grateful to Film Movement for giving it DVD distribution in the States.  I don't know much about Rwanda or the genocide there, but I am familiar with the wickedness of hatred and the futility of unrighteous anger.  Munyurangabo made me want to get down on my knees and beg for mercy.  

Love is not all a matter of timing.  

It is all a matter of continuing sacrifice.  It is a matter of dying to self and living for others.  I still have a lot to learn.   

Thursday, December 10, 2009

You can't touch this.

I had the pleasure of watching The Wolf Man with my children, exposing them to its horror before Abby knew what I was doing.

The Wolf Man is no Frankenstein.  It is not a great film.  It is still a lot of fun and has a stubborn serious streak.  Through little fault of his own, our hero becomes a wild killer.  He has to deal with mystical events beyond his capacity to understand.  As he so clearly puts it, "things you can't touch."

I've also finally delved into the third episode of Breaking Bad.  It is definitely a turning point.  The first two episodes were joined together in style and substance.  This third episode departs in a few ways.  The "flashback" that frames the episode does a lot to establish the episode's theme, achieving a didacticism absent from the previous two episodes.  If anything, this aspect of the episode is too clear and too meaningful.  The episode is still great, but just barely.  The season could go up or down from here.  Even if it is a bit too clearly stated, this episode shares The Wolf Man's trepidation and guarded respect for things you can't touch.  Both explore the "Jekyll" and "Hyde" sides of man.  Yes; they explore the soul.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

False hope

I liked the first Yes Men film, but thought that it lacked some unidentifiable unifying principle.  The Yes Men Fix the World remedies the uneven episodic nature of that first film by zeroing in on a theme: false hope vs. enacted anticipation of imagined realities.  This theme ties Fix the World's episodes together and paves the way to one of the finest endings I've seen all year.

The Yes Men effectively actualize the change they wish to see happen.  Only for a moment.  But really for a moment.  

As harbingers of the change that must occur if we do not first destroy ourselves, the Yes Men defy the present world order to the shame of us all, to the extent that we rationalize our own particpation in its evils.

Back to the ending.  It reminded me of nothing more than the grand finale of that very special film, The Muppet Movie.  All possibilites, however remote, spread open before us and all of the artifice involved in the making of the movie is washed away in a wave of audacious joy.  I don't remember ever crying at the end of The Muppet Movie.  I was sniffling back tears at the end of Fix the World.

Speaking of false hope, the Cornell student films were largely a disappointment.  To be fair, these were the Intro class films.  Next week are a few Intermediate films and some animation.

I won't go over them all since there's little chance that anyone else will ever see them.

The two best films were The Elephant in the Room, a humorous "coming out" tale, and Reel Culture, a documentary about Cornell Cinema.  Love at First Site showed promise and Young Blood was too cool for its own good.  Both were about fleeting relationships.  The rest were mostly disposable, though none were entirely bad.  I'll save the program and check IMDB in ten years for the names of all involved.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


I now believe that television itself, the medium of sitting in front of a magic box that pulses images at us endlessly, the act of watching TV, per se, is mindcrushing.  It is soul-deadening, dehumanizing, soporific in a poisonous way, ultimately brutalizing.  It is, simply put so you cannot mistake my meaning, a bad thing.     --Harlan Ellison, Strange Wine

I've just caught up with the first four episodes of the current V remake.  Thank you, Mom, for recording it for me.  

Unfortunately, V is, in a bad way, mindcrushing.  The best compliment that I can give V is to describe it as completely watchable.  I had no problem sitting around for 168 minutes or so even though I started actively disliking it early on in the first episode. 

The story and the dialogue are both stupid.  Not innocently stupid.  Actively and dangerously stupid.  The action is not at all compelling and usually resolves in silly ways.  Elizabeth Mitchell's character is as generic as can be.  I mostly liked Mitchell in Lost.  She's wasted here.  She's not given anything to work with and doesn't rise above the blah material at all.   We get as boring a hero as can be.  It's not any better for any of the secondary characters.

V both succeeds and fails, not by being good or bad, but by achieving perfect mediocrity.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Video or Videodrome? I'm staying home and watching TV.

One movie and two TV episodes is all I have to report for the last week.  I haven't really felt like watching much lately.  Maybe a short break.  Maybe the beginnings of an early winter slump.

Sugar is a sweet little film.  Alongside Rudo y Cursi, Sugar stands in a tradition of sports movie cliches and gently rises above them.  Besides being a great baseball film, Sugar smartly comments on immigration issues in a much more effective way than the heavy-handedness of something like last year's The Visitor.  

Ignore all the hype about Blind Side (which, to be fair, I haven't seen so shouldn't be bashing).  We already have the best sports movie of the year.  Its name is Sugar.

I just finished the first two episodes of Breaking Bad and really love it.  The show barely skirts the line of the ridiculous while providing thrills and eliciting heart-churning emotional responses.  There's an ultrsound scene in episode 2 that is so perfect, it's among my favorite motion picture moments of the year.  

The wall between "cinema" and "television" was already being torn down when talented B directors like Joseph Lewis and "A" talents like Hitchcock were working in early television and international masters like Rossellinni, Rohmer, and Fassbinder started working in the medium (and probably from the first flickering moments in Philo's workshop).  

That wall is in ruins now.  Most of us so-called "cinephiles" barely make it into a cinema.  I've been lucky to see a lot of films projected this year, but the dominant way that I watch "films" is through DVDs, either on my relatively small television or computer.  Sometimes I break out the digital projector.  I've got it set up nice in my bedroom right now and hope to use it more often now.  Every once in a while, I've done the truly horrific and watched something on my Zune (I've yet to watch a full movie on my iPod Touch, but it will happen).  All to say that motion pictures are much more than any single format.      

I can't speak for the general condition of today's television programming.  I assume that the large majority of it still sucks.  Breaking Bad does not suck.

Breaking Bad is basically a lively cross between Bill Nye and Hard Case Crime.  There's a pulp sensibility permeating the series (at least the first two episodes). The action is compelling and vitually non-stop, from the very first shot of pants flying through the air to the bathtub scene in episode 2.  Every moment, even the quiet ones, from intimate breakfast chatter to chemistry class are moments of action that advance the tight plot.

Besides the action, the show is closely related to pulps in its morality.  Our "straight-laced" chemist Everyman breaks bad without hesitation and ultimately without regret (so far).  There's a hardness to him that is pure noir, alongside the struggling humanity of his situation that makes him not only relatable, but totally sympathetic.  

There's a 3-second or so reaction shot during the above-mentioned ultrasound scene that reveals, in a silent face, the quiet desperation at the heart of all the action.  Then, quickly, hardness; a cover-up which is as painful for both of the characters involved as it is incrdibly funny dialogue for the audience to enjoy.    

As an aside... Brandon, you wrote that Jarmusch reminds you physically of Marvin.  During Limits, I kept thinking that Bankole reminded me physically of Jarmusch.  Which may be weird, but I thought it was there.  

I'm looking forward to the rest of Breaking Bad and also getting around to checking out all of the other critically acclaimed shows of the past decade that I've mostly missed out on.

On a related note, I don't pretend that Lost is great art, but I'm more excited about the upcoming season of Lost than I am about any upcoming art film (except for the new Malick which will be the movie event of 2010).  When Lost is doing everything right, it becomes more than goofy entertainment.  It's magic.