Making best-of lists are always exercises in self-accusation as well as personal taste, reflecting back to you the films you didn’t see, either through choice—the latest raved-about work by that wunderkind whose last film you loathed—or the panoply of great foreign films that didn’t get enough distribution, or you couldn’t bring yourself to watch when they turned up at 2 am on cable TV. And then there are the films I saw years ago and have fine lingering memories of, but can’t properly place without another viewing.
It’s possible then that in 10 years time, my list of this decade’s must-sees will look completely different. Otherwise, the criteria I’ve used for composing this list have been pretty simple: which films have stuck with me the most vividly? Which do I think offer the richest and most lasting examples of cinema I have seen in the past 10 years? What amongst what I saw 10 years ago and what I viewed last week gives me the most pleasure and stimulation in thinking back? Films I recall admiring on release can fade away to nothingness once their appointed moment of hype is over; others that felt like misses, or hit my eyes vaguely on first glance, could sink roots into my brain and grow in glory.
I keep to my usual rules for such lists: I do not pit documentaries against feature films, and I only offer one film per director. (And although I know it could therefore be argued I’m cheating with one of the choices, well, sue me.) And I’m also determined to please nobody but myself.
2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2005) In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-Wai’s airy 2000 anti-romance, gained the most immediate favour, but his follow-up, a fever dream of sleazetache-sporting journalists, masochistic call girls, black-gauntleted gamblers, and love-starved androids, is his most substantial achievement.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
Eastern bloc film noir with the lightest seasoning of message picture, Mungiu’s “shit, there’s life out past Transylvania!” revelation evoked the ruins of the recent past as well as making ever-relevant commentary on a host of human concerns—the nature of friendship, the exploitation of women—and building to a nightmarish midnight expedition to get rid of a dead foetus that made the fantastic monstrosities of No Country for Old Men look childish.
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2007)
Verhoeven’s return home was, ironically, his best chance to make a classic Hollywood film, infused with his familiar brand of haute-camp and confrontational, defiant approach to dealing with touchy subjects.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2004)
As Asian cinema continued to take great strides in the ’00s in outlook and cultural reach, its traditional genres took something of a beating after Ang Lee’s wildly popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon suddenly required every wire-fu flick have slick CG battles and operatic set pieces. Lee’s film and Zhang Yimou’s delirious twosome Hero (2003) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), set the pace for Chinese martial arts, but over in Japan, cult auteur “Beat” Takeshi Kitano took a more individualistic approach in reinventing the famed Zatoichi series, incorporating slapstick comedy, musical sequences, and a crucial humanistic sensibility.
Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas, 2007)
Half cryptic, jet-setting thriller, half cocaine-fueled S&M reinvention of Last Tango in Paris, the best of Assayas’ wayward but fascinating ’00s oeuvre took a lingering look into the yawning pits the theoretically tight-knit modern world still offers the footloose soul.
CQ (Roman Coppola, 2001)
I notice that three films in my list deal in very different ways with the stock figure of the American in Paris, but it seems appropriate considering the infamous transatlantic arguments (Freedom Fries, anyone?) and air of dislocation that defined the cultural mood after the Global Village fantasies of the 1990s. Roman Coppola’s CQ, resembles each of the other two films with that theme in different ways; like The Dreamers, it looked backward with yearning and a wistful sense of lost opportunities, and forward with hope and trepidation, and, like Femme Fatale, bends narrative in fascinating loops, whilst offering a playful ode to creative yearning and cinematic dreaming.
The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
One part sexy nostalgia, one part hymn to cinema buff fellowship, infused with political allegory and quiet menace, Bernardo Bertolucci’s only film of the decade was a sterling return to form, offering a terrific trio of young stars defining roles. More than this, being made in a period with more than a few similarities to the ’60s, yet far more stratified and fragmented, Bertolucci’s allegory about the desire to retreat into hermetic bubbles of hedonism, theory, and culture whilst the world burns, displayed a prognosticative insight.
Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2002)
Van Sant’s career reinvention kicked off with a grim, yet iridescent portrait of a school massacre, filled with moments of beauty, horror, and brutal narrative dead ends.
Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
After the censorial hoo-ha around her wayward, essayistic commentary Romance, Catherine Breillat turned in her most corrosive and fluid work, taking an unblinkered look at coming of age, the politics of family, and nascent sexuality, finally offering a concussive finale that managed with restraint what too many other Euro-cinema provocateurs tried and failed to pull off: to leave body and soul reeling.
Femme Fatale (Brian de Palma, 2002)
This ebullient piece of cinematic fetishism, with its mind-boggling heist sequence and fragmented sense of reality, proved that De Palma could take on the post-modernist brats (Jonze, Fincher, Tykwer, Gondry, etc.) and squish them between his toes.
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)
Saddled with a miscast Cameron Diaz and defiantly unconventional in its approach to the historical epic, Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating opus was nonetheless the boldest big studio release of its era, a one-time-only melding of classical myth and punk-rock tribute to Sergio Leone and Luchino Visconti.
Grindhouse: Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
Much more of an acquired taste than Tarantino’s two other popular, epic projects of the decade, the Kill Bill duo and Inglourious Basterds, and not really seen to best effect as the denuded half of a cockamamie double bill, in its full-length cut, Death Proof is a nigh-on perfect movie, pitting sassy she-devils against a rampaging dickless wonder in the best (and most metaphorically loaded) action scene of the decade.
The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001; The Two Towers, 2002; The Return of the King, 2003)
Distended and flabby in places, and yet breathtaking as a whole, Peter Jackson’s triptych reinvented fantasy and blockbuster cinema whilst remaining surprisingly true to the material’s down-home yeoman valour. It was, well, precious.
Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)
Famously booed at Cannes, and proving a momentary millstone for wonder girl auteur Sofia Coppola, Marie Antoinette was still the most inventive and allusive of the decade’s prolific biopics, mixing post-punk pop and mash-up aesthetics with a subtly smart and broad-minded study of an Enlightenment party girl, as well as confronting the vital moment, so familiar to us in this post-economic meltdown world, when the parties end.
Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
Spielberg’s had a terrific decade, and picking his best film out of a slew of inventive, quietly radical entertainments is actually pretty difficult: I could as easily vote for Minority Report, Spielberg’s best (and smartest) action film since romping around the Temple of Doom, or the deceptive, layered Catch Me If You Can, but I’ll go with Munich. Returning to looking at his Jewish identity without the awkward moral and stylistic flourishes of Schindler’s List, confirming his ever-darkening sense of history and humanity with a John Le Carré-esque account of an infamous Mossad assassination scheme of the 1970s and the even more infamous Munich massacre, Spielberg provides a dialogic structure that is a high point of sophistication in popular cinema, building to a moment of eruptive sexual crisis that, whether you found it startling or risible, is hard to forget.
The New World (Terence Malick, 2005)
After the frustrating The Thin Red Line (1998), Terence Malick rebounded with one of the greatest films ever made, a sinuously beautiful and conceptually brilliant exploration of the meeting of Europe and America through the tragic yet visionary tale of Pocahontas. No film of the decade looked or sounded better.
Pandaemonium (Julien Temple, 2000)
Armed with a gloriously mad, yet erudite Frank Cottrell Boyce screenplay, one-time Sex Pistols running dog Temple presented Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a proto-hippie and William Wordsworth as an energy vampire locked in a defining battle of the hip and the square.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
Evil cousin to The Lord of the Rings, del Toro’s film burrowed its way into the dark heart of both the fantastic tradition and the half-remembered pains of history.
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
Haneke has an irritating tendency to play the finger-slapping schoolmaster of contemporary European cinema, but his adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel settled for dead-eyed studiousness in an absorbing, memorable psychodrama, and letting Isabelle Huppert off the leash in a performance of staggering force.
Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
Michael Mann’s ferocious gangland epic was a happy mean between his favourite genre niche of neo-noir, essayed at its most darkly beautiful in Miami Vice, and his prestige-pic side, exhibited with mixed results at the decade’s start with Ali.
Somersault (Cate Shortland, 2004)
The superior Australian film of recent years, Somersault was an imperfect, yet affecting, menacing, ultimately gentle study of social, emotional and sexual exile, similar to and yet far more modest and deeper in its incisions than Ray Lawrence’s overblown twosome Lantana and Jindabyne. It also set Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington on their conquering way.
Team America: World Police (Matt Stone and Trey Parker, 2004)
Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s rowdy, raunchy, ruthless assault on both sides of the culture wars was the Dr. Strangelove of the ’00s. As well as being one of the funniest films of the epoch, and sporting the best original soundtrack full of peerlessly crafted satiric songs, it also had, of course, the greatest puppet sex-scene of all time.
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Sort of like Cimarron remade as gothic horror, Anderson’s fifth feature confirmed his tremendous promise with an oil-drenched parable about American business and religion and how they render the sacred and profane indistinguishable.
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2006)
Possibly the greatest film of the decade whilst also being one the most elusive, Hou’s tripartite evocation of love and life in Taiwan at the turn, middle, and end of the last century evokes the fatalism of oppression, the glory of yearning, and the troubling wastelands of ultimate freedom.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
American cinema south of the Rio Grande had a terrific decade, and Cuaron’s irony-laden road-movie-cum-orgy holds up thanks to the genuinely complex way it looks at solipsism, constantly asserting the way people choose and edit their realities, whilst listening out for the bell that, like, totally tolls for thee.
Others: 35 Rhums (Claire Denis, 2009); Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, 2000); Angel (François Ozon, 2007); The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007); Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003); The Blind Shaft (Yang Li, 2003); Brick (Rian Johnston, 2005); City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, 2002); The Claim (Michael Winterbottom, 2000); Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2004); Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall, 2002); Don’t Come Knocking (Wim Wenders, 2006); Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004); Exiled (Johnny To, 2006); Gabrielle (Patrice Chéreau, 2006); Nuovomondo (Emanuele Crialese, 2006); Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005); Grindhouse: Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, 2007); Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008); Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007); House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004); Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005); Lawless Heart (Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, 2001); Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007); Master and Commander (Peter Weir, 2003); Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002); Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2000); Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2005); Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005); Push (Paul McGuigan, 2009); Red Lights (Cédric Khan, 2004); Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005); A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006); The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007); Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2002); This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2007); Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (Theo Angelopoulos, 2004); The 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002); Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008); Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach, 2003); The World (Jia Zhang-ke, 2005); Youth Without Youth (Francis Coppola, 2007)
Significant blind spots: The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 2000); Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000); Time Out (Laurent Cantet, 2001); Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001); The Circle (2001), Crimson Gold (2004), and Offside (2007) (Jafar Panahi); Platform (Jia Zhiang-ke); Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, 2000); The Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2001); Audition (Takashi Miike, 2001); Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002); Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002); The Son (2003) and The Child (2005) (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne); Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2003); Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003); The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, 2005); Tropical Malady (2005) and Syndromes and a Century (2007) (Apichatpong Weerasethakul); The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2006); Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008); Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008). l
Time again for one of Dennis Cozzalio’s three-hour tours, aka, a holiday movie quiz. This one was a doozy, with 50 questions.
1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.
Believe it or not, I do like some Coen Brothers movies. My second favorite is, um, let me see. OK, why not, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Those little girls singing are gear.
2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus) Tron. I had a chance to see it projected in 70mm and blew it. I hope I get the chance again.
3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)
Tough question, but I think I’ve got to go with France. I’ve seen so many more French films by choice. Even though French cinema seems to be in the doldrums right now, it’s still fascinating to me, particularly films of the Nazi occupation.
4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
Can I pick the whole of High Noon? No, then one moment—Gary Cooper walking warily through the deserted streets of town. So many emotions ran over his cracking stoicism. Truly unforgettable.
5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
The script, of course. I’m a writer.
6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?). American Psycho. I think this 2000 movie was more misunderstood because of the crappy book on which it was based. Mary Harron burrowed into the comedy of the material, but far too many people were put off by the gore and misogyny of the book to really appreciate it.
7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.
Woody Allen. I loved his early films. I absolutely hate everything he does now and his early films don’t even seem funny to me anymore.
8.) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?
Herbert Lom. What a great face! He was killer opposite Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther.
9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub) The Straight Story. I just don’t get it; it’s too obscure and elliptical.
10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Definitely Conrad Hall! I remember hearing how he got that shot of Robert Blake talking about his father in In Cold Blood, the water pouring down the window and shadowing Blake’s face. Brilliant.
11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie. Charlie Varrick.
12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
On DVD, Sunshine Cleaning. In a theatre, Operation Danube.
13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom) The Devils. The currently available DVD, though now containing great extras and the previously censor-cut scenes, is a muddy shame.
14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?
Who? I don’t think I’ve seen anything either of them has done.
15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
Bruno Ganz elevates everything he’s in. Also, when I consider some of the dreck I’ve sat through, I have demonstrated to myself that I will watch James Cagney in anything.
16) Fight Club — yes or no?
Since I’ve never seen it, no.
17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?
Olivia De Havilland. She’s old Hollywood royalty I can’t resist.
18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.
Annie Laurie Starr, Gun Crazy: “I’ve got a funny feeling that I want to be good. I don’t know. Maybe I can’t. But I’m gonna try. I’ll try hard, Bart. I’ll try.”
19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.
Unsuccessful special effect is my choice. Greg Ferrara’s tribute to the animatronic cat from 1936’s Murder at the Gallop cannot be missed.
20) What’s the least you’ve spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)
$2.50 on The Bourne Ultimatum. The time I wasted was worth considerably more.
21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?
Van Johnson all the way. His smile, his dancing, his reluctant rendezvous with a “mighty strange” woman in Brigadoon.
22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film. Remember My Name. When will that gem come uncut to DVD, I wonder.
23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.
Wow, only about a million of them. But if I have to pick, let’s make it a double feature: the one that should have won the Oscar for 1994, Hoop Dreams, and the one that did win the Oscar for 1976, Harlan County, U.S.A.
24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded. The Exterminating Angel and all the people who are stranded in the music room.
25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.
Yes. When I thought Bela Tarr was a woman. Oh boy!
26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)
Ann Sheridan. Geraldine Fitzgerald just isn’t very memorable.
27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?
Fluffy resembles Donald Pleasence’s cat in You Only Live Twice.
28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?
Yes, Pulp Fiction. I didn’t start out avoiding it, but so many people gave me shit about not seeing it, I dug my heels in.
30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?
Definitely Jeffrey Jones. He’s great in my favorite Halloween movie, Sleepy Hollow. He’s just got an amazing face.
31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).
I don’t know if it’s the best, but I really get a kick out of how Amy Madigan plays McCoy in Streets of Fire. She miraculously doesn’t come off as a total dyke; she’s a genuine partner to Michael Paré.
32) Second favorite John Wayne movie. Stagecoach. The Quiet Man comes in first.
33) Favorite movie car chase.
The original The Italian Job. The cars are so cute.
34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins)
I’d love to see a faithful, word-for-word adaptation of The Women, using only men playing it straight.
35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?
36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.
I’ve only seen Slattery’s Hurricane, and I didn’t much like it.
37) If you could take one filmmaker’s entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Otto Preminger because he’s a complete shit.
38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it. Love Story. Click through to find out why.
39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Max. It’s really apples and hand grenades, isn’t it?
40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?
None of them. They exclude women.
41) Your favorite movie cliché.
The ingénue who goes out in place of the injured/angry/detained headliner and comes back a star.
42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
Minnelli. His golden age musicals are like priceless jewels, especially Meet Me in St. Louis.
43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.
It has to be when Ralphie’s dad unpacks his major award. I was overcome with horror thinking about that going into MY living room, let alone Ralphie’s.
44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.
When Sister Marie Bernard shows the enormous tumor on her leg to Sister Marie Therese in The Song of Bernadette and says she has never suffered. The horror on Gladys Cooper’s face when confronted with real selfless suffering and her own jealousy is gut-wrenching.
45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal) The Dark Knight fanboy cult. I have visions of them all becoming ruthless corporate raiders if they are allowed to grow to maturity.
46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?
I’m not very well versed in Hammer horror. I’ll call it a tie since I’m sure they’re both wonderful.
47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)
Definitely Raoul Walsh. He’s responsible for so many great films from the silents through the golden age.
48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission—“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”– by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.) Madeleine. Ann Todd’s entire performance is an exercise in ambiguity, but that Mona Lisa smile at the end slam-dunks it.
49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?
Roger Ebert. He continues to be supportive of my work and an inspiration to me. I hope he lives a long and happy life.
50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
George Kennedy. He’s funny and very cool. He kind of reminds me of James Coburn.
You are about to read the 500th post on Ferdy on Films, etc. When this all started back in December 2005, I had no idea how long it would last or what directions it would take. I knew that I enjoyed writing film reviews: indeed, the first reviews on this blog were copied and pasted from a film discussion board I frequented, a place film congregants who bolted from the New York Times Film Forum in protest—including Rod and the hubby—met to discuss films, fight like a dysfunctional family, and express outlooks that became as doddering as the participants who voiced them forgetfully for the 15th time. I was no longer the film neophyte who came to them looking for information and guidance several years before. I had the moxie to think that I knew enough about movies to tell other people what I thought about them without fear of becoming a laughingstock. Looking back over the 500 mainly substantive posts that comprise Ferdy on Films, I can honestly say that there is little that seems hastily digested, little I would take back, and actually a few moments of grace—my review of The Quiet Man is my own personal favorite—that any writer or commentator is lucky to achieve.
If I had been the sole critic on this blog, my “offroad” approach to film reviewing (or as Rod calls it below, the “Oxfam approach to world cinema”) might have doomed the blog to the backwaters where I hunt for new kinds of films to view. It has been my great good fortune not only to have such a brilliant writer and analytical mind in Rod to bring some real scholarly heft to Ferdy, but also his enthusiasm for mainstream movies. Thanks, Rod, for going where no 50ish woman should ever have to and bringing back such enlightening tales from the front as The Dark Knight and a double-feature of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer/Transformers. Rod’s double-features are always well-considered, from his comparison of the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s imperfect, but ambitious remake to a pairing of two Gus Van Sant films, Paranoid Park and Milk, giving me an appreciation for changes in style over time as well as a more well-rounded look at directors who have and are continuing to make a mark on the cinematic landscape.
Rod’s ability to be comprehensive while still relatively compact astonishes me. His “Look Back: Influences and Major Figures of the British Free Cinema” is an article I still reference and recall when choosing British films from this period to watch. I also believe his tribute pieces are without peer. Was there a better overview of Roy Scheider’s career at his death than Rod’s? I’m convinced not. Rod’s lengthy series on the films of Martin Scorsese gave our current reigning king of American cinema an in-depth, career-long retrospective in a succinct, accessible way, though Rod’s refusal to gaze again on After Hours, Scorsese’s ’80s affectation, still has me chuckling.
Rod’s great enthusiasm is in horror. I don’t think there’s a style of horror out there, from the eerie classics like Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead to the made-for-television cheese of Salem’s Lot and great European classics, such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, that Rod hasn’t covered. There are a lot of film blogs devoted to horror; there are few film critics who can burrow into such an irrational passion with such clear-eyed focus. Rod is never blinded by the light.
I don’t have a particular favorite among Rod’s works, but there are two reviews that have lingered in my mind. His appreciation of Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate really opened my eyes to the potential in this rising French director and the full-to-bursting creativity of its star, Asia Argento. The other, Happy Feet, was a rare personal review from Rod that is as close to a self-portrait as he’s ever likely to do here. Thanks, Rod, for all you’ve done for the blog, its readers, and for me personally. A better partnership I could never ask for.
A quick check proves that my first piece for Ferdy on Films was posted in January 2006, barely a month after Marilyn started her blog. My, how time flies. My first post is still one of my favourites, being as it is about one of my favourite films, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists. Being a film commentator, or anything, really, on the internet, has its challenges and traps. It is, in essence, the freedom to mouth off in any fashion you want, and it offers everyone else the same opportunity. Everything on the internet is both instantaneously old and yet can live on and on.
It’s perhaps a minor miracle that two people as opinionated, and of often such differing opinions, as Marilyn and I have managed to maintain a working partnership for so long, relatively free of blow-outs and blow-ups. Perhaps it’s the fact that we share a strong level of both enthusiasm and cynicism, distinctly catholic tastes (in the original sense of the word), and don’t mind a fight when it comes around. Gladly or not, we’ve both suffered a lot of fools over the years, but Marilyn’s industriousness gets things done, man! And, oh yeah, I really like reading Marilyn’s writing, when I agree with every word, and even when I disagree with her to the point when the vein on my forehead threatens to burst and my hyperactive salivary glands spew out white foam.
Marilyn has expressed amazement at my own desire to understand pop culture, where Marilyn’s fondness for little-known and diverse foreign films, which, in some of my grouchier moments I mumblingly refer to as her Oxfam approach to world cinema, is that of someone who likes to look beyond the ever-limiting prescriptions of distributors (I won’t use that now so vague and tired whipping post called “Hollywood”), studios, theaters, and mainstream critics, and look for the undiscovered and the little-appreciated, or the stuff worthy of reappreciation. The great boom in independent and international filmmaking, the huge resources of modern communication, a theoretical freedom of choice such as has never existed before, have ironically enabled the continual narrowing of alternatives by the utter cynicism of modern news and entertainment media, mercenary prerogative of corporatised culture, and a general cultural zeitgeist that’s often just fucking lazy. Such phenomena have both compressed and atomised opportunities for getting the news out on the original, the vigorous, and the interesting, not necessarily as opposed to, but surely in addition to, the colossal one-weekend monstrosities and the favoured few darlings of the fanboys.
Plus we just like yapping about movies, dammit!
One irony of this is that I often find myself having to avert my gaze from Marilyn’s commentaries on films that look interesting and will probably never turn up anywhere. I’d be lucky if I’ve seen half of the movies Marilyn has commented upon.
Still, I love that she turned me on to Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England, recognised the disguised Bette Davis movie that is Park Chen-wook’s Lady Vengeance, and so vigorously defends Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. I’ve been much amused by the difference of her opinion of Tom Collins’ Kings with my father’s—it’s a Celtic thing, he insists. I loved that she gave John Hillcoat’s The Proposition the trashing it so richly deserved, approached Ken Russell’s The Devils with such passion, and that she spares some time for some now-underrated oldies like The Nun’s Story and The Life of Emile Zola. Marilyn’s political and feminist button-pushing is always entertaining, and it hits the mark effectively, judging by some of her comments. I meditated for days on her commentary of A Question of Silence and I Spit on Your Grave, worth a dozen whining posts about mixed messages in Katherine Heigl films that passes for a lot of cultural commentary on the internet. And of course, her frontline posts from the film festivals she attends are a cornucopia of interest. I don’t go to film festivals. I can’t afford to.
If Marilyn’s a little bit more the activist, and myself more the self-styled philosopher of our blogship enterprise, well, at the very least Ferdy on Films is, I hope, a site that exhibits strong principles and considered opinion, and fulfils our mutual desire to exist on a mean between accessibility and erudition. With the 500th post on Ferdy on Films, I can’t help but see us at something of a crossroads. Perhaps that’s because we are, indeed, at a crossroads. Real life makes us acknowledge it even in the most pristinely remote corners of cyberspace. Both spirit and flesh can get a bit weak. But there’ll always be more movies to write about.
Since the occurrence of vomiting as a response to motion is both widespread and apparently disadvantageous, it presents a problem for evolutionary theory. An hypothesis is proposed suggesting that motion sickness is triggered by difficulties which arise in the programming of movements of the eyes or head when the relations between the spatial frameworks defined by the visual, vestibular, or proprioceptive inputs are repeatedly and unpredictably perturbed. Such perturbations may be produced by certain types of motion, or by disturbances in sensory input or motor control produced by ingested toxins. The last would be the important cause in nature, the main function of the emesis being to rid the individual of ingested neurotoxins. Its occurrence in response to motion would be an accidental by product of this system.
In other words, movement that does not compute with the way we normally see, hear, or experience sensation will cause us to puke. If we’ve swallowed poison, its effects on these functions may help us to expel the poison, perhaps saving our life.
There are other theories of motion sickness, such as one postulated by University of Minnesota kinesiologist Tom Stoffregen. Stoffregen is investigating whether “weird” movements in his volunteer subjects—mostly young and vigorous students—make them get sicker than subjects who remain perfectly still when subjected to sickness-inducing motion. He is physically strapping people into chairs to help test this hypothesis. “We’re interested in how [motion sickness] begins, not how it ends,” Stoffregen says. “No one has ever thrown up in my lab. And that’s a record I’m proud to keep.”
I like to encourage new thinking about this eons-old problem of the human race, but I think Dr. Stoffregen is barfing up the wrong tree. People move when confronted with disorienting motion because we want to get away from it. How many times have I turned, put my head down, and tried to refocus my eyes in the so-called “queasicam” productions that are increasingly filling our larger-than-life movie screens? Doctor, you’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s like a ski-training method my ex-husband read about that has you close your eyes and stand on one leg to increase your sense of balance. Why do you think being able to balance with your balance centers closed will make your balance better overall? Do you ski with a blindfold? None of this particular reverse engineering makes sense to me.
I remember when Martin Scorsese clucked in wonder at the perfection of the steadicam that made his tracking shot of Henry Hill’s backdoor entrance into a nightclub in Goodfellas so smooth; AMPAS even awarded a technical Oscar to its inventor, Garrett Brown. But as happens all the time, there was the inevitable backlash against the slick Hollywood movie, and with handheld DV technology, Filmmakers R Us has been fully launched.
What has puzzled me lately is how some directors are employing handheld cameras. Although The Blair Witch Project is the only film so far that actually made me throw up, I can at least understand the motivation behind its use of a handheld—the camera was the POV of a character in the film. Same with Cloverfield, such a good movie that I found a way to endure the nausea and headache it caused so I could watch it beyond my usual 40-minute limit. But what was Jonathan Demme’s rationale for using a handheld in Rachel Getting Married or Michael Mann’s in Public Enemies?
In both cases, it seems as though these directors were attempting to give audiences “you are there” moments. For Rachel, I presume it was for a sense of intimacy, of being one of the guests at this personal occasion in the life of a family, though truthfully, it didn’t make a bit of sense to me; the camera seemed more like someone stalking Anne Hathaway, a guard from her rehab clinic or somesuch. Mann might have been trying for audience identification with John Dillinger’s in-the-moment approach to living, or maybe just for the adrenaline rush that comes from pretending we’re a bad guy whose life hangs in the balance. Whatever the motivation, the self-consciousness of the camera—a truly living machine when it moves—turns the movie-going experience into a virtual-reality carnival ride. And I can no longer go on carnival rides without physical distress.
I don’t expect directors or DPs to sacrifice their vision for the sake of people like me who can’t physically stand to watch their films. The regret must be mine that a film I really wanted to see, Public Enemies, will forever be unavailable to me, not because the master and very last print of the film have disintegrated the way so many of our early films have, but because a shooting technique that has come into vogue is bad for my health. Who’d ever have thunk that movies could be hazardous to anything but the status quo? l
No freak show speculations or gawking at the face that changed strangely through the years. Only admiration for the wonderful music, my music, the music of my adolescence and young adulthood. The Jackson 5 were all over the airwaves when I was growing up. My dance studio played the first copy of “Thriller” I ever heard, and I was one of the “early adopters” of that album. I outgrew his music, even as he never grew up. But I’ll never stop loving it. Here’s a ubiquitous song from 1972 that was the first one I thought of when I heard the news. Only Michael Jackson could have made such a corny song this vital:
Greg Ferrara, the blogger formerly known as Jonathan Lapper, has been plunging headlong into the mainstream of film blogging. First, he revealed his real name. Then he decided to host his first blogathon. Now he’s started a meme, something Ferdy on Films, etc. has yet to do. This one should be interesting to think about. Here’s what Greg says:
I’d like to know what my fellow bloggers think matters about cinephilia. A list, a paragraph, a thought or two. However you want to do it. Just a little bit of what you think is important about studying film, loving film, and discussing it with like minds. Basically, what have you learned? I know I’ve learned more than I ever did from decades of reading film books. How about you?
There are some things that make cinema vitally important—as Gene Siskel said, a film critic has the American Dream beat—in terms of what it reflects about the way we live, how we see ourselves and others, and what fires our imaginations. Cinephilia, however, is full of a lot of nonsense, in my opinion, like compiling lists, watching box office returns, and overtheorizing what the filmmakers themselves saw as factory work done for dough. Blogging about film is a whole other animal. Bloggers have been taken to task by traditional media for everything from bad writing to destroying the economy. But what do they know? They don’t live here—we bloggers do.
So here’s what I’ve learned about film, blogging, and the Internet since starting Ferdy on Films, etc. more than three years ago.
1. You can get free shit and press passes just as easily as a blogger as you can as a print or broadcast journalist. You just have to grovel a little more at the beginning.
2. There are three major camps in the film-blogging world: the young geeks who tend not to write very well, normally don’t consider any film older than 1990, and usually only read their own kind; the snobs who write pretty well, but impenetrably, and stick with their own kind because to do otherwise would be to lower their status in the film community; the rest of us, a decidedly mixed bag, who aren’t on the make and don’t necessarily give a hoot what people think of what we’re doing.
3. Cable “news” has had a bigger effect on blogging than anyone would care to admit, as evidenced by a lot of tempests brewed in teapots all over the blogosphere just to drive traffic.
4. Film bloggers know how to build a sense of community with memes and blogathons, but when they’re over, we tend to go back to the dime or so blogs we usually read.
5. There are a lot of good writers out there with a lot of knowledge about film. Although I have some unique things to offer and Rod and I make a pretty formidable team together, I’m not so special, and that actually isn’t a bad feeling. The world isn’t full of yahoos after all!
6. You never know who is going to read your stuff, what’s going to be popular, or why. I’m still getting hits to How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman from a Russian discussion forum well more than two years after they posted the link.
7. Comment sections are among the best things on a blog. They can be witty and irreverent, more informative than the original post, and include people you never thought would show up. I’ve had the son of the director of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, a full-blown family feud in the comments for the Hank Garland biopic Crazy, and a filmmaker or two, in addition to my usual posse.
8. It’s very satisfying to be the first external review of a film on IMDb. A lot of these films deserve more attention.
9. Once you start a blog, it’s hard to stop or slow the pace of feeding the beast…
10. …leading to Internet fatigue hitting me more frequently than it used to. I just want to turn everything off.
11. Reviewing and theorizing about cinema can be fun, but it’s not really that important in and of itself. It’s more important to me to show how cinematic images shape our attitudes and the world in which we live, and thereby influence hearts and minds.
12. Macs are hundreds of times better than PCs.
13. Having people assign films for me to view is both exciting and painful. So far, maximum pain has not been inflicted on me by anyone.
14. What is it with people clicking a link to this site, reading what’s here, and going back to the original site to comment?!
15. People you don’t know want to control what is said about everything. A blog is one of the best ways to fight back.
A few days ago, Daniel Getahun at the glorious blog Getafilm challenged me and several other bloggers to come up with a post for a meme he dreamed up. We were to choose a place (real or imaginary) and a time (past, present, or future) depicted in one or more films that we’d most like to visit and explain why. Here is what I chose.
Place: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Time/Period: 1959 As Seen In: Bossa Nova (2000)
This movie is a bit of a cheat as a representative of the period I’ve chosen. It actually takes place in 2000, but the director, Bruno Barreto, meant it to be an homage to the Rio of Antonio Carlos Jobim, a sun-filled, lively boulevard of music and magic. Whether that place ever existed outside of a travel brochure, there is a place in my heart that fervently hopes that it did and that I could drop in at will.
Rio, of course, is graced with natural beauty even today. Its gorgeous white beaches and the creatures who inhabit them inspired the bossa nova classic “The Girl from Ipanema.” In 1959, bossa nova music was breaking through in Brazilian society:
The bossa nova appeared in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1950’s. At first it was played as an intimate music in the apartments of Rio’s middle and upper-middle classes. The music mingled the Brazilian samba beat with American jazz. Later on, bossa nova became a trademark of a new concept of music – a little sad, sometimes sung off-key, and where the lyrics have great importance.
The roots of cinema novo were sprouting, producing exciting films that were giving the French New Wave a run for its money, combining real people and locations with the Brazilian Tropicalism movement that rejected European influences—particularly sexual inhibitions.
In Bossa Nova, the colors are bright, the sea is inviting, the beaches are pristine places to walk and play, the men are passionate and romantic, the women are assertive and comfortable with their sexuality, and everyone seems to be drunk with the love of life. A palpable nostalgia echoes with the strains of the sad, minor-key bossa nova, as Brazil stood poised to move into a socially progressive era that would be suppressed by dictatorship in only a few short years. 1959 was that perfect moment, the carefree pause between the inhale and exhale of history. That’s where I want to be.
I don’t expect everyone knows about or watches the Misogyny Channel, aka Bravo, which through its programming of modeling and fashion competitions, matchmaking, and its “Real Housewives” series in Orange County, Atlanta, New York City, and New Jersey, pushes every button every girl and woman in America and most of the rest of the world has had jammed into her brain stem. And I am no exception.
I enjoy looking at fashion, so until it jumped networks, Project Runway was a winning Bravo entry for me. I think, though, it had more to do with Heidi Klum, a very engaging host, than with the show itself, which is incredibly dumb (let’s make outfits out of stuff at a recycling plant, a grocery store, and a car parts factory—yup, that’s a real test of talent). The rest of the shows have no appeal for me at all. Except The Real Housewives of New York City. For some reason, when I run across this show—and no, I don’t know when its regular time slot is; I gave up on having a constant TV schedule in my head long, long ago when the networks decided to redecorate their line-ups about every week—I have to watch it. None of the other “Real Housewives” shows have rung my chimes; I guess we all have our own psychic dynamics when dealing with female relationships, and as an urban career woman, I find this one works for me.
As with all the shows, the cast is composed of several wealthy women and the people in their lives. Jill has a rich, indulgent husband who runs a fabric business; Jill helps out at the retail store, buys a lot of expensive things, redecorates, and throws charity events. She has a fractious friendship with Ramona, who is married to a tennis pro and has her own skin care and jewelry line. They are friends with celebrity chef Bethenny, who has a food line and just published a book on achieving a thin figure. Luann, a former model, married a count, does charity stuff, and just published an “as told to” book on etiquette. Alex seems to come from a bonafide New York society family; she’s joined at the hip with her effete Aussie husband Simon and works in marketing. The newest “housewife” is Kelly, a former model and editor of Elle Accessories who is, according to Bethenny, the queen of “fabulosity:” the two women can’t stand each other. Everyone but Bethenny has children.
The more I watch this show, the more it sickens me. It’s not the wealth or even the insular bubble of New York society these women inhabit that has them running from party to party, charity event to charity event, and the Hamptons to St. Barts. It’s not even, exactly, about their appearance “touch ups,” their couture miniskirts and dresses (don’t they ever wear slacks?), or working their connections to get what they want (a private school for Johann and Francois, Alex and Simon’s kids; a tennis star Jill plans to fly from California to New York for a grudge match with Ramona and her husband Mario). The thing that underlies this series—and, I suppose, all the series—is that these women seem so immature, so adolescent, so caught up in girl culture:
Relationships are central to girls who depend on close, intimate friendships. The trust and support of these relationships provide girls with emotional and psychological safety nets. … Yet girls can be excruciatingly tough on other girls, particularly at early adolescence. They talk behind each other’s backs, they tease and torture one another; they police each other’s clothing and body size and fight over real or imagined relationships with boys. In so doing they participate in and help to reproduce largely negative views of female relationships as untrustworthy, deceitful, manipulative, and catty. Unlike boys, girls are not encouraged to act out their anger, so uncomfortable feelings often go underground and come out in unhealthy words.
From Lyn Mikel Brown’s Girlfighting by way of Still Failing at Fairness by David & Myra Sadker & Karen R. Zittleman
Watching the RHNYC cast is like sitting in a toilet stall in the girls’ restroom and hearing the reigning clique duke it out. Bethenny screams at Jill, veins bulging out of her neck, to apologize for talking about Bethenny behind her back. Ramona is struck dumb by the appearance of Simon, a man she loathes, as Jill’s tennis partner; Jill smirks at the zing she’s given Ramona. Luann is livid at the bad manners Ramona shows when she says that the count is an old man in front of Luann’s daughter! Everyone wonders whether Alex ever disciplines her sons, who, at 1 and 3 years old, climb all over the RHs at a dinner party. Kelly calls Bethenny all the way across town to meet her at a bar so she can tell her she doesn’t like her and will never be her friend. During this encounter, the infamous, “You’re here (one hand held low), and I’m here (other hand held high)” becomes the moment that characterizes Kelly’s condescending attitude. Her working the extreme hottie Max onto the show as her date is another apparent display of superiority.
More from Lyn Mikel Brown’s Girlfighting by way of Still Failing at Fairness:
Why do girls act this way? The need to belong and fear of rejection are high on the list. They want to be part of a sort of club, a club of innies. Some girls explain they like the excitement and drama of relational aggression, and evidently there is a wide audience for such behavior. Stories about “cruel and nasty girls” have become the centerpiece for magazines, television shows, and popular books. We are now taught how to tame girls, make them nicer, quieter, easier to deal with, sweeter and more pliable. A decade or two ago we feared girls’ loss of voice; now we seem to fear that they have found it. Is this a discussion about “mean girls,” or a discussion about society’s continuing pattern of defining and demeaning females?
Looking at these “successful” women makes me profoundly sad. Their adolescent competitiveness, their focus on appearance (Jill is so pleased that she almost fits in a size 0 dress), their status in a completely traditional female world of husbands, children, dating, and careers in cooking, beauty, and image seem like such a squandering of talent, energy, and considerable resources. When Luann gives Bethenny dating advice, she says, “I think men are tired of having to deal with outspoken women. You should try to be more demure and coaxing.” Oh my god! What is Bravo trying to do to us? What are these women trying to do to other women? If they aren’t really like this, why do they let themselves be manipulated?
And why do I watch them? Why do millions watch them and the other “housewives”? Because we are still part of a system that deranges us in our adolescence. Call this the unfinished business of womanhood, the chance we may be trying to give ourselves to heal the wounds inflicted on our sense of self. People may say they enjoy these shows, but the truth is, they’re not much fun after a while. They become grueling. Jill herself said she found her fight with Bethenny very painful to watch. These women aren’t self-centered, petty, or vain by nature. They’re birds in gilded cages, and whether they think it’s misplaced, insulting, or “doesn’t matter to my life,” I feel a terrible sympathy for them.
One thing that doesn’t happen much around here is a shout-out to other blogs. I read them, of course, but rarely do I call attention to some of the more interesting moments I’ve had. This month, there are a number of blogs I’ve been getting a kick out of, participated in, or kicked out at. Here they are in no particular order:
Mrs. Emma Peel (Justine Smith) at the House of Mirth and Movies has compiled a list of 100 films she calls the Unofficial Female Film Canon. She says, “I decided to make this list, because often looking at consensus and canonical lists, the film is dominated by films exploring or interested mostly in male protagonists. … I’m still not sure what I qualify an ‘essential’ film about women, I hope my list presents a huge cross-section of different kinds of women and experiences, but at the very least I’m looking for films that have at least one female protagonist, which rules out a lot of films that may have interesting or strong female supporting characters and roles unfortunately. I’m also not attempting to paint only a positive portrait of womanhood, I think many of these film reveal many imperfect, even downright cruel women… but that is part of a reality.”
I’m not entirely sure what this list is supposed to accomplish, and I think the criteria are still kind of fuzzy, but I applaud Justine’s considerable effort in compiling this list and look forward to further refinements. Suggestions are gratefully solicited.
Those feisty Tennessee Guerilla Women report that HBO is making a movie about the 2008 election. “Goddess only knows who they will come up with to play Hillary and Sarah. Let’s see, we need an ambitious ball-buster and an ambitious dumb broad. Tracy Flick and Tracy Flick. Ideas? Drop your ideas for leading ladies in the comments and I’ll post them in a poll.” Sounds like fun.
Ibetolis (Ric Burke) of Film for the Soul has started a fascinating project called Counting Down the Zeroes and has inaugurated a new blog to house the content. Contributors are invited to write reviews of the best films of the 00s. I’ve gotten involved in it as have many of the best film bloggers out there. It’s a big job compiling lists of worthy films and coordinating contributions, and so far, Ibetolis has done an amazing job. Take a look.
According to Swedish blogger Jonas Nordin, “I just wasn’t made for these times.” His blog All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! is a real delight for fans of silents and early talkies. Take a look at this great photo of Charlie Chaplin. He currently has an appreciation of Garbo called When Greta Gustafsson Changed Her Name. Browse the site and enjoy.
I’m not a fan of the Oscars, or awards in general, but most film fans are. One of them is Nathaniel R., who does some early handicapping for 2009 at The Film Experience. See if you agree.
A lot of us have taken part in the 10 Favorite Character Meme, but nobody has blown through the rules to create a long list of fascinating characters, that is, until MovieMan decided to do so at The Dancing Image. Just Because You Are a Character Doesn’t Mean You Have Character is heavy on those delicious villains we all hate ourselves for loving.
Greencine Daily tackles what it calls a faux controversy regarding the was-it-or-wasn’t-it-rape sequence in Observe and Report. “Now, why didn’t it occur to me this would strike most people as date rape? Mainly because Brandi isn’t a real person,” says article author Vadim Rizov. I admit I got more than a little hot under the collar about this one. Take a look and decide what you think.
Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee takes double entendre to new heights in his keen analysis of love among the brown shirts in Fucking Nazis. His observations are right-on as ever. Scroll just below his article for a stunning photo of Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love. l
Both Greg and Flickhead tagged me for this meme. I thought it would be fairly easy, but as with all things “favorite,” I’m reminded of why I avoid that word when it comes to movies. Here are my “favorites” in alphabetical order:
Lily Bart. Lily hopes to trade on her beauty for money and social significance, but she’s far too honest a person to survive in “polite” society. A woman trained to be an ornament, revealing how destructive society is to women, she remains an example of personal integrity to me. Gillian Anderson impresses in this role in The House of Mirth.
Virginia Brush, played by Rita Hayworth as the perfect bombshell-next-door in The Strawberry Blonde, is the opposite of Lily Bart, yet she ends up with my admiration, too. Socially correct, she can’t quite hide that beating heart of passion and ambition. She never counted on marrying money and a hypochondriac, but somehow she remains magnificent, exacting a small revenge and realizing how foolish her goals were.
Cowardly Lion. Bert Lahr created a loveable king of beasts whose fear we can all relate to and whose eventual show of courage surprised even him. A great character, particularly for kids.
Daffy Duck. Cocky and foolish, irrational when things inevitably go wrong, Daffy keeps me chuckling no matter what he’s up to. And what a great, great voice and crazy quack!
Ed from Shaun of the Dead, played by Nick Frost, is lazy, oblivious, and casually courageous. And he plays a mean Playstation. Everyone’s “I like him in spite of himself” kind of friend.
M. Hulot, Jacques Tati’s comic creation, is like a newborn babe in a trenchcoat, his ever-present pipe available to chew on as he ponders the mysteries of modern life. I know how he feels.
Ulee Jackson. Not a very well-known character created by not a very good actor, Peter Fonda, yet he really got to me in Ulee’s Gold. He feels both the negative and positive effects of age—physical infirmity and wisdom—does what he has to do, and truly loves his work as a beekeeper. The hubby and I have become acquainted with an Illinois beekeeper, and he’s just like Ulee. Great guy, great character.
Merlin, as played by Nicol Williamson in Excalibur. One of the truly eccentric performances on film, Merlin seems half-drunk most of the time. He sees the writing on the wall that the age for his type of being is past, but would rather not acknowledge it in full. He becomes more relevant to me with each passing birthday.
Scarlett O’Hara. A real Sourthern belle (played by a real English diva, Vivien Leigh) who’d just as soon shoot you as look at you. Fiddle-dee-dee, I wish I were so pretty and plucky.
Max Schreck, aka Dracula, in Shadow of the Vampire is comic and melancholy all at the same time. You really feel for him when he says how sorry he felt for Dracula in the Bram Stoker book for being so lonely. You can also imagine F.W. Murnau telling him not to eat the writer. Willem Dafoe created a memorable vampire in a crowded field.
This weekend, the hubby and I roused ourselves from a rain-induced stupor and decided to do something we both like enormously—poke around some second-hand stores. We drove down Lincoln Avenue, easily my favorite street in Chicago, and pulled up on a block that had three antique stores, one used clothing store, and a used record shop. We waded around the clothes, buying nothing but enjoying a lovely conversation with the owner, who was celebrating her birthday that day. We scored a few records at the used record shop and again, enjoyed the company of a real music/record enthusiast. We bought a vintage-looking table fan to replace our actual vintage fan that stood precariously on an ill-designed pedestal, and again, talked with the owner who lamented the inadvertent sale of a directory from Rogers Park filled with the names of Jewish businesses in the formerly Jewish neighborhood. In the last store, populated mainly with antique furniture, we scored big time. A family had unloaded its collection of stagebills spanning performances from the 30s to close to the present, perhaps 300 in all.
Now, I’ve seen at least that many plays and used to collect my stagebills until they just started taking up too much room. Therefore, I understood this collection and thumbed through it with great interest, wondering what this family had taken in over the years. I actually found a stagebill from one of the first shows I ever saw, The National Health, or Nurse Norton’s Affair (1972), with a very young Frank Galati in a memorable role as the white-coated nurse. He now is part of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble and directed their Tony-award-winning production of The Grapes of Wrath. I also found the stagebill for G. B. Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, a reader’s theatre production from 1972 starring Paul Henreid, Ricardo Montalban, Edward Mulhare, and Agnes Moorehead (“in her original role of Dona Ana”) and directed by John Houseman, whom I would interview just a couple of years later. So good were these actors that when Henreid lit a cigar on stage while Montalban was expostulating, I didn’t even notice. I was delighted to reclaim these bits of my past.
The real pleasure of going through the stagebills was seeing just how many movie stars trod the boards in days gone by. The oldest stagebill I acquired was from 1939—Walter Huston in Knickerbocker Holiday at the Grand Opera House, book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, music by Kurt Weill. Do you suppose Huston sang well? I saw not one, but two stagebills featuring Edward G. Robinson on the cover. I bought this program of his 1951 production of Darkness at Noon, based on the book of the same name by Arthur Koestler that is one of my favorite novels of all time. It played at the Erlanger Theatre, which I had never heard of. I think the State of Illinois Building might be standing on the site of the old theatre.
Others are Constance Bennett in Without Love (1943); Paul Robeson in Othello (1945), costarring Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen; Audrey Hepburn in Gigi (1953); and Cyd Charisse in Once More with Feeling (1967).
I’ve left you with a couple of puzzles and one surprise. I’ve put up two photos. The young lady was starring in Over Twenty-One, a 1944 comedy staged by George S. Kaufman. The elegant couple was appearing in The Cherry Orchard, also a 1944 show. Can you tell me who these stars are? HINTS: Both women had their brightest moments in film later in life, with the actress on the left becoming quite well-known beginning in the late 60s. The other actress spent almost her entire career on the stage, but was nominated for an Oscar in her third, and last, film; she also has something in common with Mrs. Ronald Reagan. The actor won an Oscar, and I wrote about him recently. ASKED AND ANSWERED BELOW IN THE COMMENTS.
Finally, the surprise. The characters on this cover are of ZaSu Pitts and Guy Kibbee, who were starring in the 1947 production The Late Christopher Bean. One of the players in the cast is none other than Nancy Davis, aka, Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Here’s what the program biography has to say about her:
NANCY DAVIS (Susan Haggett), comes naturally by her theatrical bent because her mother was an actress and her God-mother was Alla Nazimova. After graduating from Smith College, where she majored in drama, she made the usual preparatory flights in summer stock and repertory work. These neatly completed, she landed her first professional job with Miss ZaSu Pitts in the touring company of “Ramshackle Inn.” This lead to her first Broadway engagement in Michael Myerberg’s enchanting production of “Lute Song” where she played Si-Tchun, lady-in-waiting to the princess. The following season again saw her on the road with Miss Pitts in “Cordelia,” and last summer she toured the stock circuit in her present role in “The Late Christopher Bean.” Her only contact with the flesh-pots of Hollywood occurred recently when she appeared in a documentary film for RKO.
She’d have a little more contact with a particular flesh-pot soon enough.
The above statement is what my esteemed friend and blog partner Roderick Heath had to say about the woeful countenance of Illinois’ newly deposed knight errant—former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Yesterday was a big day for taxpayers in Illinois, the day when one of the thousands of crooked politicians past and present who have had their hands in our pockets got kicked out of office. Despite Blago’s protests that the state senate had usurped the power of the voters who twice elected him to the highest office in the state—a fact he repeated so many times that I thought he was on the verge of making a run up to Canada to buy us all cut-rate hearing aids—they unanimously booted him with our blessings. According to Politico, a poll conducted in December 2008 showed that 70 percent of Illinois voters believed that Blagojevich should resign immediately; a 73-percent majority supported his impeachment—including a majority of Democrats—with 58 percent “strongly supporting” his impeachment; and only 7 percent of Illinois residents and 13 percent of Democrats approved of Blagojevich’s performance as governor.
I’ve been following the trial all week with the help of The Beachwood Reporter’s Steve Rhodes, who live-blogged the proceedings on NBCChicago.com, and his entertaining and enlightening commenters, particularly one with the moniker Blago Sphere. As television (or in my case, streaming video to my computer), the evidentiary phase of the prosecution’s case was a little dull. Various senators asked questions that went beyond the scope of the investigator’s ability to reply. Of course, things picked up when the secret FBI tapes were played during which Blago discussed various pay-to-play schemes, pressure on the Chicago Tribune to fire an employee critical of His Hairness, and, of course, his bartering for President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.
Finally, the day of reckoning arrived yesterday. House-appointed prosecutor David Ellis delivered his summation, replaying part of a tape in which Blago discussed a pay-to-play arrangement with a lobbyist, pausing it several times to explain various parts of the scheme, and then playing it again uninterrupted to allow listeners to take it all in with full knowledge of its implications. His summation built logically, much the way the evidentiary phase built, addressing each point of the articles of impeachment with examples and compelling punctuation, like the tape. Although the senate proceedings didn’t offer much in the way of visual variety, the content of Ellis’ explications was more than compelling enough to make for riveting television.
The pièce de résistance, of course, was Blago’s closing argument to a defense he never mounted. The reason that he didn’t put on a defense is that he would not be allowed to lie with impunity without committing perjury. And lie he did from the start to the end of his 47-minute speech. He started off awkwardly, trying to curry favor in the senate chamber by thanking them early and often for allowing him to speak on his own behalf. This toadying was negated, however, by his repeated assertions that he had not been allowed to present a case and evidence that would clear his name—a bald-faced lie that was designed not to appeal to the senators, but rather to the viewing audience outside of Illinois and to potential jurors in his criminal trial. It worked, too, if comments left on the NBCChicago.com site and phone-in calls to CNN are any indication. Blago effectively confused this trial with a criminal trial—a fairly easy thing to do since impeachment and removal are extremely rare and, therefore, unfamiliar processes. The crucial difference is that holding a public office is a privilege, not a right—a privilege, like driving, that can be revoked if there is evidence of unlawfulness and recklessness in its exercise. In essence, the senate fired the governor, and we all understand the limits to protection against firing. Nonethless, Blago was offered the chance to mount a defense. Let me repeat that: Blago was offered the chance to mount a defense. He chose not to.
The former governor continued to try to address each point of the articles of impeachment, but couldn’t stay on point because he had no real defense. He repeated an anecdote about a little old lady needing medication—probably made up, and certainly embellished with novelistic flourishes about how she goes about her day—and believes this is evidence that he was right to go around the state legislature and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to buy drugs from Canada. One Canadian supplier never received payment, though funds were transferred to pay for them, and more than $1 million were wasted on promoting a program that never happened. He also said how much he cares about children and how he tried to provide flu vaccines to save lives among the young and old. He doesn’t mention how he tried to shake down Children’s Memorial Hospital for $50,000 in exchange for his support for $8 million in additional funding. Then he punted to the overwarm rehash of his immigrant Serbian background, how he’s in it for the little guy who works so hard to give his children a better future. His script needed editing to remove the redundancies, but that would have left him with about 20 minutes of talking points. Still, he’s telegenic and knows how to feign sincerity. I’d cast him in the Law & Order ripped-from-the-headlines story of his future criminal trial.
In Ellis’ rebuttal to Blago’s closing argument, he said, “When the camera’s on, the governor is for the little guy, the little people. When the camera’s off, what are his priorities?” Ellis asked, pointing behind him to a poster board containing words extracted from intercepted phone conversations. “‘Legal, personal, political,'” Ellis said. “Nothing in that statement about the people of Illinois.” This moment, and Ellis’ fiery rebuttal charged with passion, were the climax of the trial closing. All of the rage, indignation, and disgust I and others feel for the ex-gov and all the Illinois politicians like him were channeled into this one moment.
The unanimous vote to remove him from office and bar him from ever holding another public office in Illinois was the second great moment of yesterday’s coverage. While it was preceded by far too many 5-minute statements made by about half of the 59 senators who make up the Illinois Senate, many of whom did a bit of electioneering and who were definitely pots calling the kettle black, nothing could take away from the satisfaction of the final verdict. Watching the lights shine from the voting board was a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kind of moment. The people of Illinois, so pissed upon for so many years, finally were heard.
Right after a phone call to CNN from a non-Illinois resident who said the prosecution had not made its case (again, confusing this with a criminal trial) was a call from one Illinois resident who lives not far from Springfield, the state capital. She said, “You have to live here to understand.” I sincerely hope not. I know there are many other states riddled with horrible corruption. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a movement across the country to try to clean up government. l
A while back Rick Olson and I talked about running a film ethics blog together. We both have an interest in philosophy and ethics—his, a professional one, mine, a personal one—and are constantly seeing ethical dilemmas, both overt and covert, in the films we see. Unfortunately, there’s really not enough time in the day to keep up with our respective blogs, let alone another one, so that idea went the way of the dinosaur. From its ashes rose The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, whose members choose films that have some provocative ideas or themes that can spur a lively discussion. That seems to be working out pretty well, if the results of the first film club movie, The True Meaning of Pictures, are an indicator.
Now I find through the most excellent Bluegrass Film Society that the syndicated radio program Philosophy Talk has developed a new film award that is unlike any I’ve ever heard of (and in this lackluster Oscar year, we need something substantial to chew on): The Dionysus Awards. Here’s what they are and how YOU can participate:
The First Annual Dionysus Awards
Philosophy Talk is initiating a new movie award.
I know; I know. Do we really need yet another movie award? We’ve got the Oscars; the Golden Globe; the National Society of Film Critics, the People’s Choice Awards …. So what’s the point of another, you ask?
Well, it’s fun to talk about movies—at least the good ones. But more importantly, nobody really explicitly applauds movies for their philosophical merits—though filmmaking can sometimes be a highly philosophical art form. So why not an award that does just that? Finally, what could be cooler than winning a Dionysus Award? Sounds much cooler than an Oscar or a Golden Globe—at least to me.
So on February 8th, we’re going to inaugurate our Annual Dionysus Awards for the most philosophically interesting movies of the year. Our main guest will be noted film critic David Thomson. But we’ll also be joined briefly by some of our favorite philosopher-cinemaphiles who will give their takes on the philosophically most interesting movies of the year.
We’d love to have you join in the fun. Submit your own nomination for a Dionysus Award to email@example.com. Tell us which movies of 2008 you found most philosophically gripping and why. If we find your nomination compelling, we just may include you as a special guest on our on-air broadcast on the 8th.
Sounds like a winner to me. I’m planning to enter and listen. Why don’t you join me. l
There’s something going around the online world that’s even more viral than the Valentine’s Day virus from a few years back. I’m talking, of course, about the Dardos Awards. Never having heard of them until I was presented with one by blogger extraordinaire Jonathan Lapper, I found it a rather strange sensation to have actually won something, or kind of. See, I never win anything. Whenever there’s any kind of raffle, drawing, or other event of chance, I make the hubby enter it. He always wins stuff. I don’t even try anymore. Maybe that’s the secret. Or maybe I just intimidated Jonathan with my Amazon warrior cry. Yup, probably.
Anyway, so what did I win? Well, it’s not as good as wealth beyond my wildest dreams nor as bad as those parting gifts they give game show losers. Actually, it’s a pat on the back. A very nice pat on the back. A solid-gold pat on the back:
“The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.”
Dardos winners must do the following:
1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person who has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.
I’ve made some great comrades among film bloggers, some of whom I would gladly name for a Dardos Award if someone else hadn’t named them first. I do have a couple of film bloggers that richly deserve this award, as well as bloggers in other subject areas. I’ve cheated and named six because I just couldn’t cut any of these great blogs. In alphabetical order:
One of the most knowledgable film bloggers I can think of is Peter Nellhaus. His blog, Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee, reflects his vast cinematic experience, particularly his specialty in Asian films. He gets a lot of views, I’m sure. What he doesn’t get are a lot of comments—it’s because you’re way ahead of us, Peter.
Nick Plowman makes me sick! How can a high school kid be so damned talented, intelligent, and productive? Fataculture is a great blog no matter how much Nick obsesses about not keeping up with the “big guns.” He could splatter most other blogs to bits with his x-ray vision or whatever it is that keeps him going.
Daniel Getahun consistently provides great, thoughtful, self-questioning content on Getafilm. He keeps me current on what’s new in the film universe and has the most ingenious film-rating system I’ve seen. Sometimes I even think I can hear his great “Minnesota, eh” accent through the screen. (You do have one of those, don’t you, Daniel?)
I met Anna Brady Nurse from Move the Frame when I invited her to participate in the Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon I held last May. I really wanted to get some dance bloggers involved, and she was eager to join in. She does a great job of promoting New York City’s Kinetic Cinema and admirably fulfills her more general mission statement: Where Dance Meets the Camera.
The Tennessee Guerilla Women have been fighting the good fight for women in Tennessee and around the world. Some feminist sites are bitter, some are funny and bitter, some are confused. These women just tell it like it is with style, relevance, and wit. Onward sister suffragettes, or something like that.
Joe Valdez at This Distracted Globe does something I’ve never seen on any other blog: he provides a comprehensive production history of every film he reviews. He’s started to do the same with unsung character actors and actresses as well, with whom he probably identifies. Joe keeps a low profile, but I’m here to expose him to all the world! Get used to it, Joe. You’re about to be really appreciated. l
I know this is going to sound incredible, but not a day after I wished for a commentary by Colleen Moore, a reclusive Chicagoan who knew Ms. Moore very well produced a wire recording of her talking about Ella Cinders that includes some long-buried remarks about this seminal comedy. Here’s an excerpt:
“When I did this scene, it was from a painful memory. That s.o.b. director, Ally, that’s what I called Al Green because he was such a tomcat, didn’t think I could get that surprised look on my face. He broke in on me in my bath, and that’s what he said he wanted. That s.o.b.
“That’s the crew for the film. You can read my lips in this. ‘I’m awfully sorry. I didn’t know this was a movie.’ I stuck to the lines. I remember Mary Pickford getting caught out talking like a sailor in The School Teacher and the Waif, and guess who she played. She wasn’t much fun after that, I can tell you. You can’t do that with movies these days. Sound killed the inside joke.
“Oh, and here’s sweet Harry Langdon. A pity what happened to him. He was a real gent, even if he did pinch me under the blanket in this scene. I had a hard time getting the timing right for the up and down part. He pinched me to keep my cues in this part, too. Now that I think about it, Harry had a few problems. I guess it’s not so surprising what happened to him after all. The s.o.b.”
1) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD or Blu-ray?
Theatrically, part of Rachel Getting Married. Got vertigo from the handheld at about the 40-minute mark and left. On DVD, Lady Vengeance.
2) Holiday movies—Do you like them naughty or nice?
Nice. I love all the holiday trappings, music, snow, etc. It’s magic to me.
3) Ida Lupino or Mercedes McCambridge?
Mercedes McCambridge: “I’m going to kill you.” Joan Crawford: “I know. If I don’t kill you first.”
4) Favorite actor/character from Twin Peaks.
Never watched it.
5) It’s been said that, rather than remaking beloved, respected films, Hollywood should concentrate more on righting the wrongs of the past and tinker more with films that didn’t work so well the first time. Pretending for a moment that movies are made in an economic vacuum, name a good candidate for a remake based on this criterion.
My fondest wish is for Nelson Algren’s Man with the Golden Arm to get a good screen treatment. The Preminger Abomination should be obliterated.
6) Favorite Spike Lee joint. School Daze.
7) Lawrence Tierney or Scott Brady?
Lawrence Tierney. He’s so good in his early and late movies. I especially like his grizzled father of Ryan O’Neal in Tough Guys Don’t Dance.
8.) Are most movies too long?
In general, yes. When you see how much filmmakers used to be able to say in 80 minutes, it’s obvious how self-indulgent a lot of “auteurs” are these days.
9) Favorite performance by an actor portraying a real-life politician.
Paul Scofield as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons.
10) Create the main event card for the ultimate giant movie monster smackdown.
The monsters from The Host and Cloverfield.
11) Jean Peters or Sheree North?
Sheree North. She’s so cute.
12) Why would you ever want or need to see a movie more than once?
If I really liked it. If I really liked the actors in it. If I needed to write an essay for my blog about it. If I wanted to accommodate the hubby or a friend. If it’s a tradition, like watching Sleepy Hollow on Halloween.
13) Favorite road movie. Sullivan’s Travels, because comfort was never more than a few hundred feet away.
14) Favorite Budd Boetticher picture. Seven Men from Now.
15) Who is the one person, living or dead, famous or unknown, who most informed or encouraged your appreciation of movies? My mother.
16) Favorite opening credit sequence. (Please include YouTube link if possible.) Ed Wood.
17) Kenneth Tobey or John Agar?
18) Jean-Luc Godard once suggested that the more popular the movie, the less likely it was that it was a good movie. Is he right or just cranky? Cite the best evidence one way or the other.
Somewhat cranky, but essentially right. How the hell is A Beautiful Mind, the Best Picture Oscar winner for 2001, better than Mulholland Drive or even Ghost World? This is the rule, not the exception.
19) Favorite Jonathan Demme movie.
Tough question. I like so many. But I’ll pick Something Wild for the “extra credit” of Ray Liotta’s performance and the marvelous soundtrack.
20) Tatum O’Neal or Linda Blair?
Tatum O’Neal. Linda Blair was a parody before her first movie was over.
21) Favorite use of irony in a movie. (This could be an idea, moment, scene, or an entire film.)
I’ve grown to quite hate irony. Its potency has been debased. Before it was, though, I think The Conformist has the most devastating ironies, showing a man trying to conform because he really thinks he’s different, and finding out he was never different at all.
23) The best movie of the year to which very little attention seems to have been paid.
I don’t know if it’s the best movie of the year—in fact, it’s probably not—but it was quite good and fairly overlooked: What We Do Is Secret.
24) Dennis Christopher or Robby Benson?
25) Favorite movie about journalism. His Girl Friday.
26) What’s the DVD commentary you’d most like to hear? Who would be on the audio track?
I don’t listen to these, but if I could, I’d love to hear Colleen Moore’s voice, perhaps while watching Her Wild Oat. I think she’d be charming company.
27) Favorite movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Bronco Billy. “I’ve got a special message for you little pardners out there. I want you to finish your oatmeal at breakfast and do as your mom and pa tell you because they know best. Don’t ever tell a lie and say your prayers at night before you go to bed. And as our friends south of the border say, Adios, amigos.”
28) Paul Dooley or Kurtwood Smith?
Paul Dooley. You got a thing for Breaking Away in this quiz? If so, I’m on board. It’s one of my favorites.
29) Your clairvoyant moment: Make a prediction about the Oscar season.
That it will be even more boring and irrelevant than usual.
30) Your hope for the movies in 2009.
That some new independent distributors like The Shooting Gallery come on the scene and distribute all the great films I see at festivals for everyone to watch.
31) What’s your top 10 of 2008?
I don’t make lists, and if I did, you wouldn’t recognize most of the films on my list for 2008. Let’s just make it easier on both of us and pretend I did.
32) What was your favorite movie-related Christmas gift that you received this year?
We don’t exchange gifts or celebrate Christmas. But just because, the hubby got me the complete “Cop Rock” series. It’s a TV show, but I count those.
If you want something done right, do it yourself. I’ve lived my life believing that adage. Nonetheless, I have been persuaded from time to time to delegate. Sometimes it goes well. This time, it was disastrous. I told my contractor time and again which one needed to be removed from office: a goofy-looking guy with helmet hair and a delusional look in his eyes. And did I say anything about rifles? I don’t remember anything like that. Just drive him across the Illinois border; take his shoes, cellphone, and wallet; and make him get out of the car. We’ll have him impeached before you can say “Rod Blagoe… Blaga…, uh, Blugah…” oh, never mind.
Considering that I’ve always taken more pleasure in digging through the ephemera of the past and the detritus of pop culture more than pretending that right now is so bloody important, I don’t think I should feel as phony as I do writing this. For starters, there’s the absurdity of the notion that we all have the same “year”. This year saw my enrollment in a Film Studies class that played like a Gary Trudeau satire (now kids, you are to analyse the awesome artistry of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). It also saw the release of a stupefying number of films, few of which I’ll ever see. And I inevitably wonder what’s being made today that will provoke interest, excitement, the thrill of the unexpected, the signs of the artful, in 40 years? Where amongst the avalanche of films released this year are the little gems, the future cult films? Are there any? What, in short, will last? Wasn’t it only a few years ago when people thought films like A Beautiful Mind or Crash were important in some fashion?
Doomsday; The Strangers
Many of the best movies I’ve seen in the past 18 months are strange mutts produced by similar lines of thought. Films like An Old Mistress, Boarding Gate, Doomsday, and The Strangers are works made by intelligent filmmakers hunting for the scent of real blood and bone in the suspect qualities of old-school trash, florid melodrama, film noir, and no-budget horror. The year that saw the death of “termite art” theorist Manny Farber could be called a vast aesthetic tribute to his ideas. Or is the increasing tendency to nail films as “Oscar bait” the final process in the dumbing down of pop culture, a great excuse to ignore everything except the new comic book movie, which, by the by, has to provide the requisite amount of “darkness” and “relevance” in “parable” in compensation for the dearth of serious cinema? Sometimes our contemporary culture feels like the victim of a car crash learning to walk again.
Either way, I suppose in the next couple of months I may work up the enthusiasm to pretend that David Fincher is some kind of artist and that I care anymore about Clint Eastwood. There’s a host of said Oscar bait that’s been jammed into the last weeks of this year like a wholesale clearance at a high class but unprofitable carpet warehouse, and many other films anticipated still nowhere in sight (Hurry up, Let the Right One In. Avanti, Gomorrah. Please move your arse, Rachel Getting Married). More than ever, ambition in Hollywood has become a wage-slave in an Oscar-hungry boutique, trading desperately in the Christmas build-up and abandoning the rest of the year, like the Romans did their empire, to hordes of ravening cinematic barbarians.
I saw some of the best films I’ve ever seen in the past twelve months—trouble is, they were all from last year. My world was appropriately rocked by the glory of There Will Be Blood, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days (which both went on my all-time list), Death Proof (my current favourite film), Verhoeven’s gutsy Black Book, and Francois Ozon’s delightfully weird Angel, and I did not demand my money back for the likes of Atonement, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; Eastern Promises; Romance & Cigarettes; Lust, Caution; No Country for Old Men; and Sweeney Todd either. Good, bad, and ugly, these were all works of real cinema that demanded at some point during their running time for us to ask just what our definitions of quality, invention, art, and entertainment are.
10,000 BC; Get Smart
Nonetheless, I know I’m not alone in kissing goodbye to one of the dullest years of cinema in living memory (and I lived through 2001). What can one say about 10,000 BC, the most boring caveman flick ever made (and that’s saying something—seen Clan of the Cave Bear lately?) or the utter catastrophe of Australia? The limp Get Smart? The pointless The Edge of Love? The instantly forgettable The Other Boleyn Girl? The last two especially would have been prime Oscar nets if they’d had the slightest idea of what they wanted to achieve.
If 2007 was the year for works of grandly calamitous art, reflecting the fullest measure of an anxiety-wearied age by mixing fury and fear in many measures, 2008 reflected a year of transition—it didn’t know what it was about, but knew it wanted things to improve. The strongest fare came from some tried and tested sources. My favourite for the year was Catherine Breillat’s Une Vieille Maîtresse, which forcefully interrogated assumptions about the past, about gender and love, and certain genres of film-making. Mike Leigh’s deft Happy-Go-Lucky, which was badly marketed and even more badly described by most critics, was his most entertaining film since Topsy-Turvy and his most sleekly assembled since Career Girls. More importantly, it extended artfully on themes long crucial to Leigh—the necessity of communal existence and the unnoticed but vital presence of the people who make that existence possible.
The Mother of Tears
It was impossible, after watching Asia Argento lick the blood off Fu’ad Ait Aattou’s bullet wound, to take the likes of The Duchess seriously. It was Asia’s year: as well as Maîtresse and her dad’s The Mother of Tears, she possessed the screen in Olivier Assayas’ gorgeously cryptic Boarding Gate. Assayas’ overcooked dialogue hardly obscures that he’s one of the few directors trying to stare modern dislocation dead in the eye; whereas Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor represents, to my mind, where indie cinema is, for better and for worse. Intense, well-acted, real-feeling, and a movie with something to say, it still leaned heavily on familiar props of the cute little film where people of different backgrounds come together, someone learns a life lesson, and our worthy multicultural fantasies come (temporarily) true—a kind of mix-tape for middle-age wannabe radicals. Still, it sported probably the year’s finest romantic coupling, and could be remembered as the signal Obama Year film. At least it wasn’t Juno.
As far as blockbusters went, I found it a year of mixed blessings. Steven Spielberg didn’t quite nail his return to his finest franchise, with the badly structured, anti-climactic Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But it delivered a master class in how to shoot comedic action scenes, and had a kind of breezy, throwaway sense of humour (particularly in the delightful support turns of Karen Allen and Cate Blanchett) that stood in high contrast to the dour, lacklustre pretension and sloppy edits of the year’s most astoundingly overrated blockbuster, The Dark Knight. The latter film operated like a straitjacket on one of the age’s finest actors (Christian Bale) whilst liberating another (Heath Ledger, in a good year for Aussies playing villains) all too briefly.
More entertaining than Knight and more solid than Indiana Jones was Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, a neatly done, disposable superhero flick that ended up looking like a masterpiece by default, and sporting some of the year’s best acting, even though it wasn’t really as good as we said. Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted had the potential to be the year’s greatest thrill ride, with its Fight Club-rapes-The Matrix set-up, but something went wrong thanks to garish cinematography and plotting so dumb (did the hero really bring down his enemies with a horde of explosive rats?) a five year old would have been offended. As far as genre bollocks went, Neil Marshall’s giddy, unconscionable Doomsday kicked all their arses: it dove head first into revved-up car chases, gross-out effects, and ’80s references so obvious that the film finally became something of a mix-tape of the films I grew up with—indeed, it’s a film that’s testimony of the unshakable effect of disreputable but fascinating movie-making of the past. I wouldn’t exactly call it good, but it wasn’t dead either.
The Black Balloon
Aussie cinema’s desperate straits yielded, under the great cloud of Luhrmann’s Australia, Elissa Down’s The Black Balloon, a meat-and-veg little-people film that won a bunch of Australian Film Institute awards chiefly because it made money. It told us that retarded people are occasionally irritating to be around, and that Gemma Ward is awfully cute. Yes, we knew that. Ward was better used—even though she had about three lines of dialogue and spent the whole film wearing a mask—in the best horror film of the year, Brian Bertino’s The Strangers. A thin but beautifully handled exercise in pure dread that proved that someone, at least, remembers what the cinematic frame is about, The Strangers offers the possibility that the horror genre may escape its dreadful rut. Of any of the films I saw with a chance of being remembered as the cinemaniac’s dirty little secret, it’s the type that could fare very well.
Andrei Rublev; Bend in the River
What else? The greatest film I saw this year—possibly ever—was Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, a titanic work of eccentric artistry that managed to be both austere and implacable, and yet immersive and accessible. Films like that only come along once in a generation. What else? Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Kagemusha and The Bad Sleep Well; Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us; Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman; Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels; Reed’s The Key; Godard’s The Little Soldier; Carne’s Hotel du Nord; Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express; DeMille’s The Plainsman; Jack Hill’s Spider-Baby; Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos; Anthony Mann’s Bend in the River; Franju’s Eyes without a Face; Grèmillon’s Stormy Waters; and Fleischer’s See No Evil. These films all remind me that, in the end, cinematic culture is far from being only the mediocrities and minor triumphs of the moment—it’s an evolving thing, depending not just upon what comes out at the moment, but also on the perspective we gain from discovering its history. l
Once again, I was faced with trying to come up with some criteria that could help me choose 20 noteworthy actresses. Should they be the most beautiful? Should they be the finest at their craft? Should they be of a certain age? Again, I decided to choose 20 actresses I find fascinating to watch, actresses who draw my eye to them no matter what else might be going on, actresses whose work I’m always ready to sample. Here they are, in alphabetical, order.
Louise Brooks is the American Garbo, but with more range. She could play temptresses with an American wildness Garbo lacked, but also was believable in comedic and sentimental roles. And, she’s stunning!
Billie Burke always captivates me with her birdlike voice, her apple cheeks, and her charm. She’s one of the great character actresses of the 1930s who deserves to be remembered for more than playing Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
Leslie Caron has the gamine appeal that I am always attracted to in actresses. Beyond that, she is the definition of grace, with a wise innocence that comes through in her best films. I could watch her in Gigi over and over and over.
Peggy Cummins is a face you see every day on this blog. I was so taken with her in Gun Crazy and I so wanted to project what she had in that film, that I took her as my stand-in. As you can see in this picture, she’s not only naughty, she’s also nice, very nice.
Laura del Sol may not be a familiar name and face unless you have seen the dance films of Carlos Saura. Once viewed, she’s unforgettable—an intense beauty and passionate dancer. I’ve seen Carmen more times than I can remember. She’s just amazing.
Catherine Deneuve is easily one of the most beautiful and talented women who ever lived. She can delve deeply into sexual perversion, madness, and bitterness. She can also take a bourgeois character and bring out unknown courage. I always want to go wherever she leads.
Gloria Grahame has a face you never forget. Interestingly beautiful, she often played women whose looks play strongly into their fate, from Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life to Debby in The Big Heat. I can’t pass on a film she’s in.
Shirley Henderson is an actress you’ve seen more than you think you have. She’s been in Trainspotting, 24-Hour Party People, Yes, and even one of the Harry Potter films (as Moaning Myrtle). I was completely captivated by her performance in Topsy-Turvy, where she works her beautiful soprano voice and coquettishness as an alcoholic singer who is the personification of Yum Yum in The Mikado. She puts me into a trance whenever I watch her.
Wendy Hiller is a versatile actress who has had a long career, still as interesting today in look and demeanor as when she was a fresh-faced, cheeky Scots actress in Pygmalion and I Know Where I’m Going. I like her a lot!
Isabelle Huppert is a force to be reckoned with in any film she’s in. Utterly fearless and frequently diabolical and intimidating, she lends authority to any film in which she appears. She’s a miracle.
Milla Jovovich is a little hard to explain. Yes, she’s beautiful and charismatic. But even in her strictly popcorn films, she brings something more than a model’s presence to bear. She’s got a kind of vulnerable command that I find very compelling. So sue me.
Katy Jurado has charisma up the yin yang. It is impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s on screen. She even managed to upstage Grace Kelly in High Noon. She’s a singular and memorable actress.
Nancy Kwan burst on the scene in The World of Suzie Wong. It was a memorable debut film for one of the iconic actresses of the 60s. How can you not enjoy her being a girl!
Angela Lansbury, the thoroughly pleasant Jessica Fletcher on TV, often shows up on most evil villian lists for her turn in The Manchurian Candidate, one of the few women to have this distinction. I love her ruthless Mrs. Iselin, but she always breaks my heart as sweet, doomed Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Anna Magnani wears her heart on her sleeve, her hips, her legs, and most especially, her face. A symbol of martyrdom in Rome: Open City, her natural intensity and earthiness were often on display in such films as The Rose Tattoo. She’s simply unforgettable.
Colleen Moore just had to make my list, didn’t she. My love of her is well known and will continue as long as I can watch her perfect comic sensibility and adorably versatile face in action. And then maybe longer.
Cathy O’Donnell is one of those actresses who always seems to pop up in older movies, and I’m always delighted to recognize her. They Live By Night, Side Street, and of course, The Best Years of Our Lives reveal her as a sympathetic, sweet presence. I just always feel warm when she’s around.
Christina Ricci is my favorite contemporary actress. There’s nothing she can’t do. She even made being tied up half-naked in Black Snake Moan interesting. She’d be my only choice for the part of Molly O if The Man with the Golden Arm is ever made into a decent film. I just wish she hadn’t gotten so skinny.
Theresa Russell is a subtle, mysterious actress I’m completely fascinated with. Black Widow is a minor masterpiece of the 1980s because of her duel with Debra Winger.
Michelle Williams is not an actress I ever thought I’d find so watchable when I saw her first film forays. She’s grown into a mesmerizing presence for me, and has improved exponentially as an actress. Only a little more time and she’ll lose all those youthful mannerisms and enter the major leagues.
The “baker’s dozen” silhouette at the beginning of this article is Greta Garbo.
Over the past few weeks, a few of my fellow movie bloggers have revealed parts of their home movie libraries. They weren’t big show-and-tells, but they provided a glimpse at the person behind the curtain, so to speak. Now, I’ve never hidden my identity or a lot of the details about my life, but I am a bit private when it comes to my home. Not that it’s some kind of sanctum sanctorum, mind you, though the computer room/den comes very close to being a staging area for macabre rituals thanks to the hubby’s delight in collecting gargoyles, mini-guillotines, pagan altar pieces, and other bizarreiana. But I’m ready to show you just what kind of a film geek I am.
As a collector, I’m as piddling as someone who never goes to the movies. I don’t have a lot of books or DVDs. I had a lot of videos, mostly recorded off my TV; it was hard to rent or buy them at a reasonable price for quite a while, so my VCR was once my best friend. I don’t have a lot of memorabilia other than ticket stubs, because I live in a condo without a lot of storage space and I really hate the feeling of clutter. So what you’ll see here represents the items I’ve deemed worthy of taking into my home, some rather randomly, some foisted upon me by others, but mostly because I feel better knowing they are giving off energy in the place I am most relaxed and inspired.
I have a lot more artwork than I have room to hang it, but this piece will always have a place of honor in my home. The advertising cards are all from films I’ve seen, and none of them ever made a big splash, though most film buffs will recognize them and may have seen them. The card on the right in the second row is my version of historic preservation—the 2001 line-up of films from the late, lamented Shooting Gallery; two of the cards in the frame, The Low Down and The Day I Became a Woman, are from that series. I have the most awesome framer who I’ve been going to for decades, so I’m really pleased with how this looks.
On to the memorabilia. Above is one piece in a small collection of Rudolph Valentino items that includes a couple of vintage photos and a paper doll collection. I keep the bulk of the collection at work, but this cookie tin kept rolling off my desk, so I brought it home where the hubby has surrounded it with other vintage items from my mother and his.
Now the ticket stubs. Here’s what holds them:
I can’t show them all to you, so I’ve selected some that have some special interest for me. The first Ebertfest had some beautiful tickets. (They got grayer and more subdued over the years.) A three-piece band from Michigan called Concrete played their own score for Battleship Potemkin. Director Paul Cox did a Q&A about his wonderful A Woman’s Tale.
Here’s one from the Silent Summer Film Festival. Do you know that I forgot I saw Twinkletoes? Unbelievable. But going through all these ticket stubs, I saw a lot of film titles I didn’t recognize at all, including, believe it or not Bunuel’s The Milky Way, which I claimed not a week ago to never have seen and, in fact, to have avoided! However, the other two on this page, Lost in Translation (Did I really see that at the Siskel Center? How odd.) and Cloverfield, I remember well.
Here are a few from the defunct Taos Talking Picture Festival. Sorry I didn’t get a better picture. The significant ones for me are Vera and Whale Rider, which was unknown in the States when I saw it. It didn’t stay that way.
Below are some different styles of Chicago International Film Festival ticket stubs. I quite like the first ones, with elegant type for the festival name over a grayscale image of the festival logo—Theda Bara’s eyes. By 2004, the stubs were the usual Ticketmaster style they are now. No character. Oh well. The stub for The Exiles is not from the CIFF; it’s sort of my way of bragging that I discovered this film a long time before the hordes of cinephiles who now, thankfully, have easy access to it.
Finally, I’ve got a smattering of films I saw at the Siskel Center. The tickets not only tell what film was shown, but what series it was a part of; for example, Sound of the Mountain was part of an extensive Naruse retro. The Iberia ticket means a lot to me because Carlos Saura was there for the screening, where I got a chance to thank him for his unique dance films and get his autograph on a VHS tape of Carmen and a DVD of Blood Wedding.
I like to go to films when I’m on vacation. I had a few stubs from Hawaii, but the photo didn’t come out. I wish I had the stubs from my trip to Johannesburg, where I remember seeing Center Stage and the first X-Men movie. Then again, I wish I had all the stubs over the decades. “What we’ve missed, Lucia, what we’ve missed.”
On to the DVDs. This is pretty close to all of them; a couple of photos didn’t come out. Yeah, I know: “Is that all?” Hey, I’ve got a kickass library collection and Facets to rent from. The hubby is responsible primarily for the horror films and stuff like Mondo Bubba, Dogville, and Dogma. A number of the films have Chinese characters on them; those came from my Shanghai connection.
I was going to put up pictures of my books, but there are only about 35, and none of them is all that “important.” Nonetheless, I have a few favorites: Silent Star, Colleen Moore’s autobiography, Foster Hirsch’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, and Andrew Bergman’s We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films.
Whew, I’m glad that’s over! It’s not as easy as I thought it would be to put this out into the world. I don’t exactly know what you’ll make of all this. Let me know. l