Thursday, May 18, 2017

Stromboli, Europa '51, Viaggio in Italia

Stromboli (Rossellini, 1950) Rating: 10/10 stars.

Like an Italian Flannery O'Connor story. (Both influenced by Simone Weil: "Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it . . .") Aside from the New Wave and Antonioni, this must have had a major impact on Kiarostami--The Wind Will Carry Us is practically a more self-reflexive remake.
Here's Rohmer on its personal impact: "It was Rossellini who turned me away from existentialism. That took place in the middle of Stromboli. In the first minutes of the film I recognized the limits of the Sartrian realism to which I believed the film was going to limit itself. I hated the way of seeing the world it encouraged me to take, until I understood that it was also encouraging me to move beyond it. And then the conversion happened. That's what is amazing about Stromboli, it was my road to Damascus: in the middle of the film I was converted and I changed my way of seeing things."

Europa '51 (Rossellini, 1952) Rating: 10/10 stars.

Perhaps the least praised of the Rossellini/Bergman trilogy, no doubt because it seems the most melodramatic and least modern, I found it by far the most moving. True, the final act is forced in the way it seems to leave plausibility behind as society punishes Bergman's transgressions, but in another sense it is just as inexplicable as the endings of the other two films, though here tragic rather than eucatastrophic. Grace can come to an individual, but not to society as a whole. And if Bergman's character is inspired by St. Francis, she is a a Francis with no followers and no freedom--the film is an investigation of what someone would have to go through to truly view the world the way Francis did, and it turns out to be incredibly painful, unnatural, and perhaps unsustainable. Yet the challenge remains.

Journey to Italy (Rossellini, 1954) Rating: 10/10 stars.

There have been several times in cinema history where a single filmmaker has created an entire trilogy to explore the state of modern of Europe: Antonioni's L'Avventura/La Notte/L'Eclisse, Kieslowski's Three Colors, Gomes's Arabian Nights, and I guess Seidl's Paradise trilogy. Rossellini is the only director to give us two such trilogies, and inside of a single decade as well. (Though I wonder how Fear fits into the series--I need to see it as soon as I can.) Both Antonioni and Kieslowski owe an obvious debt here--indeed, Three Colors seems modeled on this earlier trilogy to a surprising extent, and someone should compare Kieslowski's use of his actresses to Rossellini's use of Bergman.
What else is there to say about this film that hasn't already been said better by so many others? Well, for one thing, it appears to me that Paul W.S. Anderson watched it before making Pompeii--and got something out of it, too.

The Flowers of St. Francis (Rossellini, 1950) Rating: 8/10 stars.

What is it to have the faith of a child? Look here, and know.
Wonderful Easter viewing.

Monday, February 27, 2017

If I Gave the Oscars: 2016 Edition

As usual, these are how I would give out awards to the movies of 2016, if that was a power that I had.  Best Picture nominees are top 10 from my Best of 2016 post.

Each category is listed in order of preference, with the first director/actor/etc. being my choice for the winner.  Things should be fairly self-explanatory from there.

Best Director
1. Martin Scorsese (Silence)
2. Terrence Malick (Knight of Cups)
3. Terence Davies (Sunset Song)
4. Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
5. Robert Eggers (The Witch)

Best Screenplay (Adapted or Original, doesn't matter)
1. Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese (Silence)
2. Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
3. Whit Stillman (Love & Friendship)
4. Richard Linklater (Everybody Wants Some!!)
5. Robert Eggers (The Witch)

Best Actor
1. Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
2. Tom Hanks (Sully)
3. Andrew Garfield (Silence)
4. Josh Brolin (Hail, Caesar!)
5. Michael Shannon (Midnight Special)

Best Actress
1. Kate Beckinsale (Love & Friendship)
2. Agyness Deyn (Sunset Song)
3. Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch)
4. Amy Adams (Arrival)
5. Emma Stone (La La Land)

Best Supporting Actor
1. Mahershala Ali (Midnight)
2. Issey Ogata (Silence)
3. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea
4. Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!)
5. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!)

Best Supporting Actress
1. Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)
2. Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!)
3. Kirsten Dunst (Midnight Special)
4. Janelle Monae (Midnight, Hidden Figures)
5. Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad)

Best Cinematography
1. Emmanuel Lubezki (Knight of Cups)
2. Rodrigo Prieto (Silence)
3. Michael McDonough (Sunset Song)
4. Khalik Allah, Par Ekberg, Snatiago Gonzalez, Chayse Irvin, Dikayl Rimmasch, Malik Hassan Sayeed (Lemonade)
5. James Laxton (Midnight)

Best Editing
1. Geoffrey Richman, Keith Fraase, A. J. Edwards (Knight of Cups)
2. Thelma Schoonmaker (Silence)
3.  Blu Murray (Sully)
4.  Bret Granato, Maya Mumma, Ben Sozanski (O. J.: Made in America)
5.  Gilbert Adair (Everybody Wants Some!!)

Best Scene
1. Going to church (Sunset Song)
2. The final apostasy (Silence)
3. Grand finale (La La Land)
4. Hold Up (Lemonade)
5. Airport fight (Captain America: Civil War)
6. History of the Louvre in one shot (Francofonia)
7. Final penthouse fight (Kill Zone 2/SPL 2: A Time for Consequences)
8. Running into your ex (Manchester by the Sea)
9. Calling a girl (Everybody Wants Some!!)
10. Triple crucifixion (Silence)
11. O.J.'s second criminal trial (O.J.: Made in America)
12. 155 Safe (Sully)
13. "Drive It Like You Stole It"--final concert (Sing Street)
14. Diner interrogations (Hell or High Water)
15. Police station scene--Trying to describe a mermaid (The Mermaid)

(actually posted Mary 18, 2017)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Best of 2016

1. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

2. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

3. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

4. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)

5. O. J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

6. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)

7. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

8. Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov)

9. Sully (Clint Eastwood)

10. The Witch (Robert Eggers)

11. Sing Street (John Carney)

12. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)

Honorable Mentions:  Arrival (Denis Villeneuve), La La Land (Damien Chazelle), Lemonade (Beyonce Knowles), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins), Pete's Dragon (David Lowery), Kill Zone 2/SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang), Three (Johnnie To), Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen), Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)

Most Overrated:  Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush) (but also kinda Moonlight)

Most Underrated/Underseen:  Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick), obviously, but also Pete's Dragon and Sunset Song and Francofonia

Favorite Guilty Pleasure:  The Mermaid (Stephen Chow)

Worst Movie I Saw This Year: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (John Requa, Glenn Ficarra)

Complete list of movies I saw in 2016 HERE.

Top 20 Older Films I Saw for the First Time in 2016:

1. Children of Paradise (Carne, 1945)
2. Where Is My Friend's House? (Kiarostami, 1987)
3. Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991)
4. Point Break (Bigelow, 1991)
5. Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)
6. The House of Mirth (Davies, 2000)
7. I Walked With a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
8. Risky Business (Brickman, 1983)
9. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, 1953)
10. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964)
11. Stage Door (La Cava, 1937)
12. Arsenic and Old Lace (Capra, 1944)
13. Extreme Prejudice (Hill,1987)
14. Speed Racer (Wachowskis, 2008)
15. La Promesse (Dardennes, 1996)
16. Near Dark (Bigelow, 1987)
17. The Awful Truth (McCarey, 1937)
18. Metropolis (Lang, 1927)
19. Late Spring (Ozu, 1949)
20. Great Day in the Morning (Tourneur, 1956)

That's the Top 20, but you can find the Top 40 in color HERE.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Best Criticism I Read in 2016

I read a great deal of criticism this past year, some of it bad, much of it very good.  I read books, magazines, online articles, and bog posts, listened to podcasts and radio interviews, and watched video essays and DVD extras.  And since internet criticism and opinion journalism has exploded to such an extent over the past few years, it seems to me worthwhile to single out a few of the best pieces of criticism I encountered in 2016 for others to check out as well.  So here's a small, by no means exhaustive list.

Among the books I read, none of which are really available online (and most of which are already well-known cinephile circles), I would like to single out:

  • When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade by Dave Kehr (2011)
  • Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin (2003)
  • An Invention Without a Future: Essays on Cinema by James Naremore (2014)
  • Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969 by Andrew Sarris (1970)
  • Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave edited by Jim Hillier (1985)
And two major works of criticism that are not about cinema: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus (1989), which starts with the Sex Pistols and ends up linking punk rock to the Situationist International, Dadaism, and the Paris Commune of 1871, and The Last War in Albion by Phil Sandifer, an ongoing blogging and self-publishing project that starts with the comic books of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and ends up linking them to William Blake, William S. Burroughs, and almost every corner of the sci-fi/fantasy genres.

(As a side note: Modesty compels me to admit that I did not read every one of these books cover to cover--they are after all mainly composed of individual reviews and essays.  But what I did read was challenging, mind-expanding stuff that I heartily recommend to all.)

On the individual essay front, here are several notable articles available online that I encountered for the first time this year:

  • Greil Marcus on John Wayne from February 1979, soon after Wayne's death
  • Andre Bazin's analysis and attempt to partially curtail the "Politique des Auteurs" in Cahiers du Cinema, 1957
  • Jacques Rivette on "The Genius of Howard Hawks" in 1953
  • A fascinating Jacques Rivette interview from Les Inrockuptables in 1998, where he gives off the cuff opinions on a few dozen films and directors from the '40s to the '90s
  • An extraordinary long profile of the great Yuri Norstein on (I know! where did this come from?)
  • Dave Kehr on Jackie Chan in Film Comment 1988
  • Alan Jacobs compares Lena Dunham with Jane Austen (from 2013)
  • Tag Gallagher on auteurism and the problem with "reading" a film in 2001
  • Lionel Shriver's notorious and necessary speech on "Fiction and Identity Politics" from the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival
  • Ignatiy Vishnevetsky consistently writes some of the best obituaries on the net at The A.V. Club, and, alas, he got to write many of them in 2016.  Here's his take on Alexandre Astruc.

And finally, two heroic and necessary essays on the current problems in critical discourse that aren't afraid to call out political puritanism for what it is, even when the authors agree with the overall progressive political project: Richard Brody on "Why Movies Still Matter" and Nick Pinkerton on "Talking in Circles".

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

38 Sentences

(With apologies to this post by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky)

Like Clara Bow for It and Maria Falconetti for Passion of Joan of Arc, Alicia Silverstone will live forever because of Clueless While for Miyazaki, filmmaking is primarily emotional, even physical--measured in how many frames he draws personally, how much of himself he pours into the film--for Takahata, filmmaking is primarily intellectual; he’s always rethinking the way animation works, redefining its limits.  Sofia Coppola shoots hotel rooms better than anyone in the history of cinema.  Lightning McQueen & Mater = Bob the Tomato & Larry the Cucumber, particularly in Cars 2.  Are we approaching a point when we will no longer be able to speak of “human nature” because it’s too “essentializing,” too rigid and meaningless and even offensive?   The major problem with Stephen Curry is that he mispronounces his first name.  Terrence Malick has left the proscenium further behind than anybody in narrative cinema: we are constantly aware of a world around us, a vast space stretching in every direction (even the city is Big Sky Country).  The thing about the various (supposedly cuckoo) interpretations of The Shining (and I am not the first to point this out), is that the sundry clues and motifs studied by the movie’s obsessives (Native American imagery, visual nods to the space program, oblique allusions to the Holocaust, constant verbal acknowledgment of colonialism, conquest, and Westward expansion) are in fact really there, and can, moreover, be nearly all integrated into a single vision when we realize that the Overlook Hotel is a nightmare maze of History, where sins and crimes (y’know, ghosts) of the past swirl everlastingly and threaten to drag the present and future of humanity down with them into eternal cycles of power, dominance, violence, and cruelty.    Amy Schumer isn’t funny.  On Focus (2015): The camera glides along, the colors are pleasingly balanced, and everything is modulated to look “classy,” but somehow there’s not a single memorable image in the entire movie.   One of the central appeals of the apocalypse as a fictional trope is the way it shatters the postmodern confusion of the current world situation, bringing good and evil back into view and clarifying absolutes.  Appreciating art is mostly a matter of orienting oneself properly toward the aesthetic goal of the work--appreciating what it does well, not asking it to be something it’s not.   I bet I can think of over a dozen different TV shows off the top of my head that were directly influenced by or had their ways paved for them by Buffy the Vampire Slayer: there’s the obvious ones like Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, the WB fellows like Charmed, Smallville, Roswell, and Supernatural, plus others like Veronica Mars, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf, iZombie, Jessica Jones, Russell T. Davies’ revival of Doctor Who, and even Kim Possible.  Lubitsch treated his scenarios, his characters, and his audience with unfailingly good manners, and it’s always good manners to keep your guests entertained and at ease.  Looking through these lists of things only ‘90s kids will get, a thought occurs to me: I really envy Baby Boomers’ ability to be nostalgic for things that actually happened.  Zack Snyder’s visual style is primarily influenced by comic panels and pulp cover art, and seems to be more concerned with bringing these still images to life than telling a coherent story--which, in the case of Batman v Superman, gives the images a weird sort of power; they feel so disconnected that the movie has a sense of a plunge into the void.  Malick sees philosophy, religion, and art as a continuum, and it is because of this that we can examine each of his films from the framework of multiple philosophical theories and theological stances and find illumination and worth through each of them.  If Grave of the Fireflies is Takahata’s neorealist film, and Only Yesterday and My Neighbors the Yamadas are his Ozus, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is his Mizoguchi.  Looking around at all his producing work, so focused on recreating the various undervalued genres and styles of his youth, one gets a sense of George Lucas as the square Tarantino.  Clichés in art: the problem isn’t that they’re false, the problem is when they’re lazy, when the artist doesn’t work to find the truth in the cliché which made it a cliché in the first place.  Scariest movies I’ve ever seen: (7) Psycho, (6) The Shining, (5) Alien, (4) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, (3) Pinocchio, (2) Dumbo, (1) Mickey Mouse in Runaway Brain.  Johnnie To’s signature images--crane shots and full-bodied medium shots of people standing on eerily-empty streets (that just might be sets)--remind me of nothing so much as 1940s MGM musicals, particularly those starring Gene Kelly.  What makes Girl, Interrupted interesting and genuinely valuable as a movie is the extent to which it is a direct ideological response and correction to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In a ’50s Hollywood landscape hyped up on the Method, John Ford often stood out as a poet among dramatists.  Lana Del Rey = Nancy Sinatra + Joan Didion + lip injections.  Watching the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on stage recently (where the Athenians kick back and mock the players), I was surprised and overjoyed to discover that Shakespeare had invented Mystery Science Theater 3000 four hundred years early.  Amy Sherman-Palladino > Amy Heckerling > Nora Ephron > Eli Roth > Lena Dunham.  For Hitchock, the cinema was all about the temptation/repulsion of voyeurism; for David Fincher, it’s all about the terror/yearning of being watched.  It might not be out of place to consider Eyes Wide Shut in light of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Young Cruiseman Brown, as it were.  If sentimentality and brutality are linked, and they are, this might be a clue to the dark side of fandom and internet bullying: obsession and giddy investment in fictional relationships/melodrama/etc. can leads to lashing out with anger/hatred/violence at anyone who criticizes or takes it away.  Orson Welles once said of Jean-Luc Godard, “[H]is gifts as a director are enormous, I just can’t take him seriously as a thinker;” F for Fake can be read as Welles showing Godard how to use his style to think.  I find praise of Spike Jonze’s Her for its romanticism to be deeply disturbing; Her is a horror story or it is nothing.  Comic books ≠ superheroes of course, though the stereotype has been limiting to both the medium and the genre.  The reason many movie polls are so boring is the same reason Top 40 radio makes everything sound the same--they lack a motivating intelligence/sensibility, a sense of actual opinions being held that have a little risk and personality to them; instead, good movies/songs coexist next to bad ones with so little differentiation that it becomes one big stew of mediocrity.  If cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out, too often television seems to be a matter of what comes before a commercial break and what comes after.  Watch Thief and Blackhat back-to-back and you might think the latter is a high-tech remake of the former.  Miyazaki places his small moments among his large setpieces, Takahata places occasional setpieces among his small moments.  High aesthetic ideals for art sound great until you realize they don’t let you enjoy your disreputable favorites; might that tension be the point at which new critical tastes are formed?   

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

" "

Bad filmmakers (sadly for them) have no ideas.  Good filmmakers (it's what limits them) tend to have too many.  Great filmmakers (especially the inventors) have only one.  This idée fixe enables them to keep moving on, to take the idea through ever-renewing and ever-interesting landscapes.  The price to pay is well-known: a certain solitude.  What about great critics?  It is the same thing, except there are none. . . All but one.  Between 1943 and 1958 (the year of his death: he was only forty) André Bazin was this one.
--Serge Daney