Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Note on Messterpieces

Maybe it's because after you've seen too many films, convention loses its edge. Or maybe it goes back to the old French film critic's claim that the worst film by an auteur will always be more interesting than the best film by a non-auteur. But whatever the reason, lately I've become more enamored of "messterpieces."

A quick internet search tells me that the term "messterpiece," as I use it, has been used before. (The most official source I've found is IFC's Matt Singer.) But since the top search results for "messterpiece" are a Bounty ad campaign and an address in Glenview, Illinois, it seems that the term isn't in wide enough use, so it's worth outlining what it means and why such films have appeal.

A "messterpiece" is, as the name suggests, a film that would be a masterpiece if it wasn't such a mess—and you could dismiss it as a mess if it wasn't also kind of masterful. A messterpiece is often jumbled, awkward, overloaded, undercooked, and can understandably come across as an indulgence. But inside that awkward, overloaded, undercooked jumble is something of value: energy, inventiveness, distinct personality, and ideas that would be a shame to ignore. They're not perfect, but then, the people I love aren't perfect either, and I see no reason to have a double standard for films.

Messterpieces, in fact, probably aren't even "great." There is such a thing as a great and messy film—a film whose mess is part of its greatness. (Something like late 60s Godard comes to mind). No, these are films that, for what they are, could and probably should have been improved upon. If you had to judge them on a limited two-directional axis and come up with an adjective, they'd probably only be "good." But their flaws, in a way, have a certain warts-and-all appeal for the adventurous: it's almost like looking under the hood. The inspiration isn't fine-tuned, but it's inspired nonetheless. They're the misunderstood monsters of cinema.

The best example of a recent messterpiece may be the film that introduced me to the term: Richard Kelly's Southland Tales (2007).

Kelly broke onto the scene with Donnie Darko (2001), which, despite a negligible initial run, built up steam on DVD and midnight screenings to become arguably the cult film of the decade. Southland Tales was his follow-up: a gigantic sci-fi sprawl, daftly ambitious in the way that sophomore features are always rumored to be.

Essentially, Kelly combined Philip K. Dick, David Lynch, Hollywood blockbusters, comic books, B-movies, reality TV, music videos, post-9/11 paranoia, the red state.blue state divide, The Communist Manifesto, and the Book of Revelation to create a wildly campy and distinctly American vision of the apocalypse. Little good can be done trying to briefly synopsize the plot, which has to do with an amnesiac movie star, a burgeoning police state, and—why not?—a rip in the space-time continuum. The film stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, and Sean William Scott. This alone is enough to cause eye-rolling in certain potential viewers, until you realize the film's ironic, self-conscious wavelength—not to mention the tacit understanding that, for better or worse, America is a country defined by its shiniest, flashiest pop culture.

By most bellwethers, the film was a failure. It cost about $17 million, and in its entire worldwide run, it made *checks internet* $375,000. So unless it pulled in extraordinary home video numbers—it didn't—somebody got hosed. Critics weren't much kinder to it. On rottentomatoes, it holds steady at about 39%, with pull-quotes like "immature," "incoherent," "politically sophomoric," and, from Richard Roeper, "one of the worst cinematic train wrecks I've ever seen." (More on that in a moment).

But among the few critics who stood by it was Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, and her defense perfectly captures the appeal of "the messterpiece." Her review came at a time when the great film of the day was the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men, and she took the opportunity to draw a parallel. Ms. Dargis writes:
American cinema is in the grip of a kind of moribund academicism, which helps explain why a fastidiously polished film like “No Country for Old Men” can receive such gushing praise from critics. “Southland Tales” isn’t as smooth and tightly tuned as “No Country,” a film I admire with few reservations. Even so, I would rather watch a young filmmaker like Mr. Kelly reach beyond the obvious, push past his and the audience’s comfort zones, than follow the example of the Coens and elegantly art-direct yet one more murder for your viewing pleasure and mine. Certainly “Southland Tales” has more ideas, visual and intellectual, in a single scene than most American independent films have in their entirety, though that perhaps goes without saying. Neither disaster nor masterpiece, “Southland Tales” again confirms that Mr. Kelly...is one of the bright lights of his filmmaking generation.
And that more or less sums up why a film so messy can be so fascinating and so worthy of attention.

Of course, messterpieces being what they are, it's not a film that I'd be comfortable giving undiluted praise. It's almost certainly more jumbled than it should be, even by Lynchian anti-logic standards. (And as the film goes on, I sense that Richard Kelly thinks repeated blowjob jokes are funnier than I do). The less said about The Box—Kelly's most recent film, which has much of the same problems and none of the virtues—the better. So on the whole, it's easy to see why Southland Tales has had a hard time finding acceptance, as in many ways, the different elements of its appeal cancel each other out.

But more importantly, it looks like nobody knew exactly what to do with it. On its theatrical release, it never made it to more than 100 theaters. The week it came out on DVD, a friend of mine recommended it, so we went from store to store searching for a copy. Circuit City had it listed in "Comedy," Best Buy had it listed in "Action," Barnes & Noble had it listed in "Sci-fi," and none of them carried it in stock. When the distributor printed up the DVD, they didn't used the blurb from the New York Times calling Kelly "one of the bright lights of his filmmaking generation." Instead, they went with a quote from Ain't It Cool News saying that "the Rock is awesome!"

Still, in all its off-kilter, junk-clogged messiness, Southland Tales fits as a minor benchmark for aughts. It captures the Bush era as a bizarre, fragmented, media-saturated nightmare that gets stranger and stranger until it collapses in on itself—and it can strike a chord for anyone who feels like current events in America are like a bizarre dream. Keep on the lookout for nice, sardonic touches, like how the opening exposition is sponsored by Gillette. Even the casting is a postmodern wink: Amy Poehler as a Marxist revolutionary, Jon Lovitz as a brutal cop, and Timberlake as the prophet of Revelation. Unpolished, frequently immature, and occasionally misfiring, yes—but often some kind of inspired.

In short, it's a film due for reevaluation. My friend Adam Cook, over at the Bronze, has already thrown his hat into the ring on this, and I would recommend checking out his article.


The critical reception for Southland Tales is worth returning to, since getting poor (or at least highly mixed) reviews seems to be the fate of messterpieces. This is even more of a shame, since such bizarre, limited-release niche films rely on critical recommendation. The reception for Southland Tales can be seen, in miniature, in this review from At the Movies, where Richard Roeper thrashes the film for 60 seconds, and the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips dives in to defend it for the next 20 before they have to cut to commercial. You can see their exchange here:

When Philips and Roeper say that they wouldn't recommend it to a "general audience", it's an interesting point to consider, if only because of what it says about the role of the critic in popular culture. For starters, I'm not entirely sure what a "general audience" is or if it it really exists—though I assume it's a group of non-cinephiles looking for a movie on a Friday night. (And who can blame them?). But giving thumbs up or down to the Hollywood entertainment of the week is one of the least important roles of a critic; far more important is the analysis and consideration of the ideas that are at work. Let's not get ahead of ourselves—Southland Tales isn't L'Avventura. But then, L'Avventura is another film I wouldn't recommend to a group of non-cinephiles looking for a movie on a Friday night, so that may not be the best bellwether. Philips's "save your bile" comment is a fitting defense for messterpieces: to me, a film that is emotionally or intellectually vapid, regardless of slickness, is far more deserving of critical skepticism.

To me, messterpieces stand most strongly as an alternative to the idea of the awards season "prestige picture", by which I mean something along the lines of, say, The Reader. These end-of-year films more strongly hit their mark: more polished, more forceful, and probably more watchable. As such, they find more acceptance from audiences and from the powers that be at awards ceremonies, and it's easy to see why. But by the time the Oscars have all been handed out, they've faded in amongst the rest. To me, a film like Southland Tales is more memorable, more interesting to discuss, and more tempting to return to than at least half the Best Picture nominees of the last decade. It's gotten to a point where I'm more interested in a personal film that's gotten polarized reviews than I am in the critically-acclaimed Oscar bait of the year.

After all, falling flat on your face—publicly, at that—has to be admired. It takes courage.

A scene from Francois Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player (1960), which I would label as a messterpiece from an earlier era. At the time, it was dismissed by critics and by Truffaut himself, who called it simply "my second film." The infamous New York Times critic Bosley Crowther commented, and not without reason: "It looks, from where we are sitting, as though M. Truffaut went haywire in this film...as though he had so many ideas for movies outpouring in his head, so many odd slants on comedy and drama and sheer clichés that he wanted to express, that he couldn't quite control his material." Today, the film has a reputation as a minor classic.

A running list of other films that I would describe as messterpiece, or otherwise "messterful":

Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Stanley Kubrick)
Schizopolis (1997, Steven Soderbergh)
Dodes'ka-den (1970, Akira Kurosawa)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Something About a Bright Light (L O S T)

I turn my back on the media for a moment, and so many stories worth noting have piled up. We get what detectives would call "hard evidence" that Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole; John Stossel said on TV that the free market would stop racial discrimination; and a small controversy has brewed over the fact that for a movie called Prince of Persia, Hollywood went with the white guy.

(Fun sidenote about that last bit of ethnic appropriation: I actually found a small detail in the Prince of Persia trailer kind of funny. It's been a longstanding Hollywood practice to cast any ancient civilization with actors who have British accents. Romans, Greeks—all British. So when they cast an American as a Persian, it appears that all they had him do was use a British accent, thus moving Hollywood a further degree of separation from racial/national accuracy).

But of course, the big media news has nothing to do with reality at all. ABC's Lost ended its 6-year run in a big, two-and-a-half-hour TV event that was more or less guaranteed to piss off a comfortable majority of its audience. From 2004–present, Lost was one of the most innovative and (to a cult following) one of the most loved shows on network television. Lost was an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a revolving door of romantic couplings. It was a pulp, sci-fi, character-based soap opera adventure philosophical allegory—nd lots of fun. But it was also kind of a Ponzi scheme of answers, delving deeper and deeper into cliffhangers and unexplained mysteries every time it tied up a single loose end.

The big question, plaguing Lost fans and separating them from everyone who gave up on the show, was whether or not the writers "know where they're going"—or if the Ponzi scheme would collapse. Getting near the end of the series, it was thrown increasingly into doubt: in short, there was no way in hell they could tie this all together. In the week before the final episode, I heard some comic speculation over what a good finale would be. My favorite was the shocking revelation that the entire show was a dream in the mind of Special Agent Dale Cooper.

But I, having no TV, had to wait until the next day so I could watch it on Hulu. I heard vague echoes of despair on facebook, and when I went out to breakfast the next morning, I saw a headline in the local paper that "Lost finale leaves questions unanswered" (I think it was actually under stories about how there's a budget deficit problem and conflict in the Middle East).

A lot seemed to be riding on this ending. It was as if, until this moment, the jury was out on the entire series: only after the ending could we step back and evaluate Lost as a whole. This, needless to say, put a lot of burden on the finale—the way it doesn't matter how many impressive backflips an Olympic gymnast does in midair if they don't nail the landing.

For me, Lost was one of the few shows I devotedly kept up on. Not only was it different, it was different in a way that took full advantage of the narrative possibilities of the current age. It seems fair to say that a show like Lost could not have existed (and lasted) before TiVo, Hulu, and TV on DVD. In other words, you could now do an exceedingly complicated, multi-threaded, serialized story that demanded to be seen from the beginning and watched without any holes. Lost was exhibit A for the TV potential of the past decade, and I always loved it for that.

So I sat down to watch the finale and see how they went out. 2 hours (and 12 modest commercial breaks later), I decided that I must be one of the few people who was not incredibly annoyed by it, even though they went the Full Wachowski.

Thoughts on the finale will follow, and it goes without saying that there will be incidental SPOILERS.

First off, a note on the unanswered questions. There are a lot of them. So many, in fact, that it's not even worth compiling a laundry list. Which is, I suppose, the natural consequence of spending 6 years ending every other episode with a cliffhanger. You can pick which one annoys you most (mine is that they never answered what, exactly, is up with Libby).

I definitely feel they're allowed unanswered questions. A lot of details—like, say, where the statue came from—are incidental, and the show can maintain some mystery. Leave it for fan fiction and authorized paperbacks. The bigger problem is that during the last half of this season, they did what you're not allowed to do for sci-fi: they set up a fantasy world with no clear rules, and a battle with no clear stakes.

So ultimately, with all that was left untouched, my satisfaction with the finale has less to do with the quality of the episode itself and more to do with a willingness to just go along with it. The surprise twist for the end of the finale, that [SPOILER] everyone has died, was understandably something that left people unsatisfied. And I have to admit, I cracked a smile when a character defensively said that, even though this part wasn't real, everything else had still happened. In other words, a message from the writers: "don't worry, we're not saying it's all a dream."

It's actually a very similar ending to The Chronicles of Narnia. (Viewers may recall that C.S. Lewis was referenced earlier in the series). It wouldn't surprise me if they were going for something like Lewis's The Last Battle, which also ends with the revelation that everyone died, and which also has its fantasy adventure give way to abstract spirituality about finding peace beyond the material world. If that's the way they wanted to go, it's certainly a fascinating choice. And if the "real world" on Lost has become too complicated for its own good, maybe spiritually announcing that it's all irrelevant isn't so bad of a call.

So ultimately, now that we can step back and see it as a whole, what is Lost? An overly ambitious experiment? A lesson about biting off more than you can chew? A cop-out to the Christian right? The world's longest and most complicated allegory for a man coming to grips with the death of his father?

I actually maintain that Lost is what it always was: a singular, innovative show that managed to be different and get away with it. If it no longer feels right to call it one of the best shows TV ever offered, I can at least say that I don't regret following it.

And seriously, if you want to see a frustratingly enigmatic finale, watch the old 60s show The Prisoner. The Prisoner's last episode is possibly the most ballsily abstract thing ever aired on TV, and it upset people so much that its producer and star, Patrick McGoohan, briefly went into hiding. Lost has nothing on that.

Friday, May 14, 2010


From Yahoo! searches:

Nothing to add to this, really. I just thought I'd preserve it in posterity: May 14, 2010 AD.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Les Enfants Du Lucas et Spielberg are forced to care again (A post about Star Wars? On the internet?)

"That's it! I'm through with Star Wars! I don't care anymore."

These words were spoken by a friend of mine after he went to see the Clone Wars animated movie a few summers ago. In all fairness, we were kind of asking for it.

Both of us were born in the pop cultural landscape of the 1980s, and so were part of the tail end of the group that could be described as "the children of Lucas of Spielberg" ("les enfants du Lucas et Spielberg" sounds classier). Not ardent Star Wars Fans with a capital F, but...you know, the sort of young movie buffs who first grew to love Hollywood adventure through VHS tapes of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and E.T.

With that bedrock of fondness, we hit adolescence during the whole prequel deal. The problems with that particular trilogy have been critiqued often and vehemently (and with great hyperbole) over the last decade, and there's really no need to go into it. But Lucas, for his part, seems fairly unfazed by the wave of negative criticism, and it's worth noting that in a recent interview, he used the Hollywood Nuremberg defense: kids like it. In fact, Lucas claimed that a whole new set of kids prefers the prequels to the originals. I'm totally willing to buy that this is true. But it may also mean that the root problem with the latest mediocre Hollywood blockbusters (including some with Spielberg's name on it) is not entirely on Hollywood's end. It's not hackery or a lost touch, but a shift in cultural tastes towards having everything bigger, louder, faster, and shinier, irregardless of content. Maybe the real monster is us.

In that broader context, it's easy to see where my friend was coming from after he left the Clones Wars, which was basically a Saturday morning cartoon that they decided to release in theaters. His desire to not care anymore was like both a rebellion against the tentpole system (which relies on the marketing clout of established franchises) and the bitter nostalgia of post-adolescents who already sound like stodgy old men when they claim that the series peaked in 1980. Indifference towards any new entries in a once-reputable franchise didn't seem like a bad idea.

The strategy of calculated indifference, though, was challenged recently. When I swung by yahoo the other day, I was caught off-guard by a front page headline--next to a slightly less disturbing one about Nic Cage going blond--announcing that a Star Wars sitcom is in the works. At first, adding a sitcom to the Star Wars canon seemed wildly off. My first thoughts were that either a) they realized that when you set a laugh track to the romantic scenes of Episode II, it attains a level of ironic poetry; or b) George Lucas had decided to dig until he hit rock bottom.

But then I found out that it would be spun off of the Robot Chicken spoofs of Star Wars--essentially free-style comic riffing--and the announcement took on a subtext other than selling out. It was an official sign that the franchise was going to embrace self-parody. Maybe that's not a bad thing. If anything, the prequel trilogies took themselves--their mythology, their love story--too seriously. I'm sure this announcement has already sent rage ricocheting around the internet, though I haven't felt like checking. I honestly have no idea how this will turn out, or if I'd give in to marketing clout and tune in out of curiosity.

It can be best not to care.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kevin Smith, Auteurism, and the Mass Culture Debate

The following post is informed by nostalgia and media theory.

A new episode in the mass culture debate happened last week, involving Kevin Smith.

Smith, aka "Silent Bob," is an independent film icon from the 1990s, and could be accurately described as something along the lines of a "raunch auteur." His breakthrough flick, Clerks, which he made for less than $30,000 by maxing out his credit cards, is a case of the cinematic American dream in action. And throughout the 90s, he sketched his own self-contained universe, a New Jersey suburb filled with aimless, hyper-articulate post-adolescents who have nothing better to do with their time and energy than debate Star Wars. At their best—and they're often inconsistent—his 90s films alternately show sensitive insight (Chasing Amy), on-target satire (Dogma), and strong character-based comedy (Clerks). (Mallrats, though a critical flop, is the perfect movie for a middle schooler to watch when his parents aren't around.) As many have noted, including Smith himself, he isn't particularly remarkable when it comes to directing. But that never really mattered, since he wrote some of the wittiest comic dialogue in 1990s America film.

This decade, though, has seen Smith become more of a Hollywood hitman. When I saw the trailer for Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which he wrote and directed, and which was a pretty solid raunch comedy, what surprised me was that the trailer didn't mention him or his past work at all. Compare that with Dogma, which positioned itself as "from the creators of Clerks and Chasing Amy." (As far as credits go, Smith, I believe, likes to emphasize group collaboration over the whole auteurist claim of individual authorship—which I actually find very admirable.)

The transformation seemed complete when I saw the trailer to his latest flick, Cop Out, a film in which, sigh, a comically irresponsible black dude and a comically stern white dude team up to fight crime. Not only did it look like a formula star vehicle, it wasn't even his script. It looked like a sign that his identity was being subsumed by Hollywood formula, and nothing I heard since did anything to change that impression.

But all of that was just a prelude. As Anne Thompson notes at indieWIRE, Kevin Smith caused something of a stir recently (an internet stir) by insulting the critics who panned Cop Out--which was, as Thompson points out, his highest gross to date.

Smith's post is a long one, touching on the righteous (the ridiculousness of rabid hating, the mellow enjoyment of simple pleasure) before going into his take on critics, complete with a long, incredibly detailed politically incorrect metaphor. Take a deep breath. His accumlated posts, which came in response to fan question about film theory, are as follows:
@coked_up_jesus “I gotta say that every day I hate film theory & film students & critics more & more. Where is the fun in movies?” Sir sometimes, it’s important to turn off the chatter. Film fandom’s become a nasty bloodsport where cartoonishly rooting for failure gets the hit count up on the ol’ brand-new blog. And if a schmuck like me pays you some attention, score! MORE EYES, MEANS MORE ADVERT $. But when you pull your eye away from the microscope, you can see that shit you’re studying so closely is, in reality, tiny as fuck. You wanna enjoy movies again? Stop reading about them & just go to the movies. It’s improved film/movie appreciation immensely for me.

Seriously: so many critics lined-up to pull a sad & embarrassing train on #CopOut like it was JenniferJasonLeigh in LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN. Watching them beat the shit out of it was sad. Like, it’s called #CopOut; that sound like a very ambitious title to you? You REALLY wanna shit in the mouth of a flick that so OBVIOUSLY strived for nothing more than laughs. Was it called “Schindler’s Cop Out”? Writing a nasty eview for #CopOut is akin to bullying a retarded kid who was getting a couple chuckles from the normies by singing AFTERNOON DELIGHT.

Suddenly, bully-dudes are doing the bad impression of him, using the “retart” voice. The crowd shifts uncomfortably. And you may impress a couple of low IQ-ers who’re like “Yeah, man! Way to destroy that singing retart!” But, really? All you’ve done is make fun of something that wasn’t doing you any harm and wanted only to give some cats a some fun laughs. It was just ridiculous to watch. That was it for me. Realized whole system’s upside down: so we let a bunch of people see it for free & they shit all over it? Meanwhile, people who’d REALLY like to see the flick for free are made to pay? Bullshit: from now on, any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct critics screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week. Like, why am I giving an arbitrary 500 people power over what I do at all, let alone for free? Next flick, I’d rather pick 500 randoms from Twitter feed & let THEM see it for free in advance, then post THEIR opinions, good AND bad. Same difference. Why’s their opinion more valid? It’s a backwards system. People are free to talk shit about ANY of my flicks, so long as they paid to see it. Fuck this AnimalFarm bullshit.

I find this to be a very interesting entry in the basic mass culture debate—which is also, for that matter, the root of a great many internet arguments: populism ("don't overthink, just enjoy") versus intellectualism ("this is mediocre").

And I think there are, to this issue, a great many nuances.

On the one hand, I think that movies should be fun--or rather, that there should always be a place for fun movies. But I'll never buy the argument, which I see over and over again, that critics don't like fun films.

A brief detour to Rotten Tomatoes shows that recent blockbuster hits like Iron Man and Star Trek got rave reviews—to pick a gender-flipped example, Julie & Julia got strong critical notices as well. (Or, to pick something older, Singin' in the Rain continually tops lists of the greatest films of all time, and I defy anyone to find a happier, more bubbly movie). I think critics do like "movies," they just like them to bring something to the table. Entertainment is a good thing--not the only thing, but a good thing--but most bad movies don't qualify as entertainment by the pure fact that they don't entertain. At best, they only qualify as distraction.

Of course, one man's entertainment is another man's distraction, and having times when you can turn your mind off can be a great privilege. But I don't think people should be discouraged from reading or thinking about the media they consume. And if extremely low ambition is the producer's defense, I'm not sure that's an argument worth winning.

I'm reminded of a quote by Ebert, who is hardly an intellectual elitist (no one can be and give Vin Diesel's xXx three-and-a-half stars at the same time). Ebert wrote--in a discussion of the most unapologetically intellectual director in film history, Jean-Luc Godard--that we live in a time when the mainstream audience expects to be "congratulated for its narrow tastes, and catered to." The use of "narrow" rather than "bad" is key. And I agree: currently, the idea of intellect in the public arena is too often seen as something to be sneered at.

Snobbery is its own problem, and it should be avoided. After all, it occurred to me that I watch movies by Jean-Luc Godard for the same essential reason that someone else watches, say, Cop Out: it's what we like to do during our spare time to keep ourselves busy and make us contented. But I can't get on board with Smith here. I think people should be encouraged to poke around, to read up on films, to look into what makes all these ostensibly-great movies so great instead of just uncritically accepting the latest execution of a formula. And in the meantime, I hope we see more movies from the creators of Clerks and Chasing Amy.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

One German company's battle against narrative exhaustion

Last summer, Paul Schrader--a film scholar, the screenwriter of Raging Bull, and a bona fide member of the cinematic old-guard--wrote an op-ed for The Guardian called "Beyond the Silver Screen." If you haven't seen it, it's worth checking out in its (short) entirety.

But basically, he says that in a world already drowning in media, audiences suffer from "narrative exhaustion." We know the formulas, we've seen it all before. And so, to engage and maintain interest, entertainment shifts: becoming, among other things, more "reality"-based (with reality in quotes) and more participatory. In closing, he speaks of cinema in the past tense as a medium on its own way out:

Movies were the artform of the 20th century. The traditional concept of movies, a projected image in a dark room of viewers, feels increasingly old. I don't know what the future of audio-visual entertainment will be, but I don't think it will be what we used to call movies.

This seems melancholy. I certainly hope the traditional concept of movies never goes completely, though as a member of the new-guard who has the greatest respect for the old-guard, the sense I get in the brave new world is not melancholy, but rather a tentative enthusiasm for new directions and possibilities.

Which is why I found this article from Gizmodo interesting. It's about an interactive system that sounds pretty experimental, and that a company in Germany has used to spice up the genre with perhaps the most ruthlessly repeated formula: horror.

Essentially, The Last Call is the "first interactive horror movie." At the start of the screening, everyone in the audience provides their phone numbers, which get lodged in a computer. During the movie, the frantic heroine (chased by whatever) dials a number in her cell phone, and the companies computer dials an audience number at random. That audience member then answers and engages with the movie: the heroine will ask which may she should go, what should she do, and the viewer can tell her. Observe their trailer, which does a lot to play up the new angles that Schrader was talking about:

I think this sounds like a very interesting experience in a number of ways--aside from the fact that it requires a narrative logic where the main character is relying on life-or-death advice from a stranger over the phone. At the very least, it represents an even more explicit embrace of horror as a genre that people use for a kind of offbeat, somewhat campy party experience. Not to mention the genre where people most like to shout at the screen.

But there are a few things I have to wonder about it. Just in theory, I wonder if this makes the audience more engaged in the characters' lives, or less. That is, does it keep you at arms length from the story, making it even more clear that the images on screen are playthings? (And of course, the choices are few and random and would all presumably have to lead to a certain running time). As far as narratives are concerned, giving random advice to a character seems far more suited to gimmickry than investment--though horror is a genre that does just fine with gimmicks.

On a logistical level, I'm curious how it works. I imagine it could be interesting to the viewer who gets randomly called, but less so to everyone else. Or the rest of the audience would want to get involved to, as they do in the video, calling out advice. Everyone in the video seems cool about it, united by a sense of solidarity (more in tune with a ride than engagement in a narrative). But theater etiquette would definitely be an X factor.

It doesn't sound like the sort of thing that could go wide and into theaters everywhere--it seems far more suited to a Star Tours style theme park attraction. It's almost certainly more of a curio than the Future, but I'm curious, and it shows the ongoing use of technology against narrative fatigue.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Baseless Predictions '09 (Why I don't expect Avatar to win)

I like the Oscars. Yes, there’s something inherently ridiculous about the glitz/glamour, and their picks often feel like a kangaroo court--subject to hype and only judging on a very conventional axis of cinematic quality. But more importantly, it’s a celebration of “movies” as an idea. As an abstract concept. As a set of shared cultural memories worthy of uncynical praise and endless, endless montages. And that’s something that I can get behind.

Plus, it’s always interesting to see the Academy's ongoing quest to get people to actually watch it, from shrinking the Best Song performances to moving the lifetime achievement awards to their own separate ceremony. For last year, they announced cryptically that the Oscar ceremony would hold "surprises" and "many, many risks" for the nominees, which I found oddly funny (though any hopes for a Streep-v.-Winslet Thunderdome match went unfulfilled). This year, they expanded the number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10, thus broadening the pool.

What I found refreshing about this year’s nominations, actually, was how little of it seemed annoying. Upping the Best Picture crop from 5 to 10 has allowed several interesting smaller films to have space in the spotlight. Some of my favorite films of any size this year, like A Serious Man and An Education, have gotten their due, which makes me happy even if they still have no chance of winning. And even beyond that, very little this year strikes me as egregiously overrated. (The source of my mellow contentment may be that I haven’t seen The Blind Side, whose sports clichés left many critics unimpressed, and whose "nice white lady" narrative has apparently ignited a particularly redundant battle in the ongoing culture war.)

It’s traditional for a prediction breakdown of who’ll win the top prizes. Brief caveat: as far as inside scoops are concerned, I’m completely unqualified.


Though there are 10 nominees, the word a while back was that only 5 of them were really contenders. Or rather, only 2: The Hurt Locker and Avatar. Think of it as the likable prestige picture vs. the blockbuster. My instinct was that it would be a fairly safe lock for The Hurt Locker, though I've seen analyses that predict Avatar would come out on top, for the basic reason of Avatar's record-breaking box office.

"Hollywood ♥ Money" sounds like solid conventional wisdom, but the parallel I'd draw is Star Wars. Back in 1977, Star Wars was, like Avatar, an unprecedented technological breakthrough, an unprecedented moneymaker, and a Best Picture nominee. But at the end of the day, sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters hit hardest among the younger crowd, and Academy voters are adults—and thus are far more likely to give the top prize to a movie that addresses more serious adult issues. (The winner that year was Annie Hall.) Lord of the Rings only did it on its third try, after several years running as a cultural phenomenon. I would give The Hurt Locker the edge over Avatar, since it has more of that prestige weight behind it as the first awards season success about the Iraq War.

The X factor, of course, is that one of The Hurt Locker’s producers slipped up and recently sent out an email to Academy voters asking for their support. Since such direct campaigning is against Academy rules, he essentially committed a major breach of etiquette with only a few days left before the ballots were due. (I was not familiar with the nuances of Oscar campaigning, so for me, the most visibly inappropriate part of his email was the gigantic run-on sentence.) But he’s apologized and has been officially chastised by the Academy, and whether or not it affected the vote remains to be seen. I’d still bet Hurt Locker, but at least now the ceremony has an added twist of suspense.


Historically, Picture and Director walk hand in hand the vast majority of the time—though this last decade has brought plenty of exceptions. The easy tabloid subtext is that this year’s frontrunners, Avatar’s James Cameron and The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow, used to be married. My bet is Kathryn Bigelow, not only because I want her to win, but also because the Academy has already given James Cameron an Oscar for making the biggest movie ever and would have to really be in the mood to do it again.

The other key factor, which can’t be ignored, is that a Kathryn Bigelow victory would be historic: she could very well become the first woman in the 82-year history of the Oscars to win Best Director. Only four women, including her, have ever been nominated. Her win would be interesting in a number of ways, not least of which is that she makes films in a stereotypically male genre: “high-octane” action (The Hurt Locker doesn’t even have a central female character). Depending on who you ask, this is either a good or a bad thing, symbolizing alternately that a) women can do anything men can do, or b) women have to be one of the boys to succeed. Regardless, The Hurt Locker is incredibly well-directed, and there’s a very real chance that the first woman to win Best Director will be the auteur behind Point Break, the ultimate Keanu Reeves action/surf/buddy flick (apologies to Sofia Coppola).


This race is an almost certain lock for Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, which slightly bothers me. It’s not that I don’t think Jeff Bridges deserves an Oscar—he does, and has for a while now. It’s what it says about award season.

Jeff Bridges' character in Crazy Heart, who spends most of the time being charming and nostalgically wasted, bears a not-ignorable resemblance to Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski—a comparison that the film actively invites with an in-joke early on. So he’s essentially playing a country singer variation on the Dude, with a few melodramatic staples mixed in: calling his long-lost son, losing and then regaining the love of a good woman, and dropping homespun wisdom about getting by. (I believe he refers to his beat-up car as “ole Bessie” at one point, though it’s possible that I was so caught up in folksy homilies that my memory added that detail). Placing Jeff Bridges front and center and letting him go, Crazy Heart is as much a Best Actor reel as it is a movie (ask me about my problems with the narrative). So it's dramatic, but in such a conventional way that it almost feels contrived. And it kind of bothers me that that’s an Oscar lock when a role like the Dude—whose heroic passivity in a land of ambition made him a more interesting character and, in an odd way, a more authentic one—only got nominated for a Satellite Award.

But who else would it be? George Clooney as a suave but cynical charmer? Morgan Freeman as an unimpeachable beacon of inspiration? (Both of whom have won before.) Jeremy Renner is too new, and Colin Firth hasn’t had the awards season momentum. Jeff Bridges has the veteran-who’s-owed-one cred, and he’s been winning all the pre-Oscar awards accordingly. And though I wasn’t particularly crazy about the movie itself, Bridges is wonderful in it—he pretty much carries the movie by himself. And when he wins, it’ll be overdue.

Still, I’d love to have seen more off the beaten path performances, like Souleymane Sy Savane in Goodbye Solo, at least get a moment in the spotlight with a nomination.


Since this category seems pretty much like a lock as well, I feel like I might as well make a digression.

Best Actress is generally the category I find the least interesting, and it’s not because I don’t see interesting leading lady performances. It’s more about the Academy’s tendency towards very conventional movie star roles.

In 2008, my favorite actress of the year was Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, who was her character so completely and so engagingly that if I ever met her in real life and she was somebody else, I’d be surprised. Despite winning the Golden Globe, she wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar.

The conventional movie star performance, nominated instead, would be exemplified by Angelina Jolie in Changeling: a major star slightly deglamourizing herself, putting on period costume, and forcefully emoting lines like “I want my son back!” Which is well and good and compelling enough to watch, but you never forget that you’re watching a movie star and not a character. In other words, the Academy won’t give Kate Winslet an Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where the slightest flicker is a character note (and the slightest smile can break your heart), but they will give Kate Winslet an Oscar for The Reader, where she puts on period costume and old-person makeup and fiercely intones, “I learned to read.”

Maybe that’s why deep down this year, I’m rooting for either Carey Mulligan in An Education or Gabourey Sibide in Precious: because I can more easily see them as character rather than star.

The lock this year is Sandra Bullock.


The Supporting category I find almost always more interesting, at least in terms of the roles. Here's a category for villains and comics and oddities, unburdened by the need to have a conventional Best Actor/Actress arc. But wow, pretty much all the acting contests are locks this year. The winners will be Mo’Nique for Precious and Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds (making Best Supporting Actor the annual award for Villain of the Year for the third year running). Anything else would be a big upset.


The screenplay awards may in fact be my favorite category of the year each year, just because they’re the place that small, outsider films have the best chance of getting attention. And to that effect, I’m glad that In the Loop gets a presence. But on to the winners.

I bet Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner's script for Up in the Air will (deservedly) take this one. Reitman is 3 for 3 at the moment for popular/acclaimed movies. He’s an insider who’s been nominated before, and the Academy clearly likes his film. I’d be surprised if it were anyone else.


If this is indeed a Hurt Locker year, it could very well pick up the Original Screenplay award as well, which would slightly bother me, since it’s not so much a writer’s movie as a director’s movie. But then, the screenwriter Mark Boal has personal experience going for him, since he wrote it inspired by time spent as an embedded journalist. And it’s been on a screenwriting award roll, picking up at both the Writer’s Guild of America awards and the BAFTAs. However, Quentin Tarantino’s script for Inglourious Basterds was deemed WGA-ineligible, so at the Oscars, The Hurt Locker’s WGA edge might very well give way to a Tarantino victory. I predict it will.

So that’s it for my main predictions for the 2009 awards. Tomorrow I'll be posting running commentary on the Awards show.

And in the event that you haven't seen it yet, check out the trailer for every Oscar movie ever. Get excited.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Birth of a Nation's Relatively Inoffensive Younger Sibling: Weighing in 94 Years Too Late and Giving Redundant Advice

I apologize for taking so long to post, but I was watching a D.W. Griffith film.

Keeping in mind the Mark Twain quote on how a classic is something that "everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read," I've lately made it a goal to actually go back and watch all the old canonical classic films. It's all the satisfaction of a job with none of the pay, and this blog may be dipping in and out of the quest from time to time--provided the commentary isn't too redundant (Citizen Kane is good, etc.). First was a matter of choosing a canon, which is a post for another time). But D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) is one that appears in seemingly all of them.

Intolerance was Griffith's follow-up to his hated/admired film The Birth of a Nation (1915), which will now and forever be one of film history's most problematic milestones. For those who aren't familiar with the film, or for whom it only rings a faint bell, The Birth of a Nation is famous primarily for two reasons.

First, it's a bona fide cinematic landmark. At a time when movies were seen as more of a novelty than an artistic medium, Griffith together techniques we take for granted (cross-cutting, close-ups) into a multi-threaded epic that demonstrated the possibilities of cinema on a grand scale.

Second, the film is blatantly, virulently, and unforgivably racist. Not even as a subtext--more like a flare shot up into the sky. The movie's historical perspective is essentially that the South goes to hell after the slaves are freed, and all seems lost until the KKK ride in to save the day. Even in its time--over a half century before the term "politically correct" became popularized--the film was met with protests. Today, it seems almost too grotesque to believe that anyone ever took it seriously. The most mind-blowing part is that Griffith was reportedly taken aback by charges of racism, which can still make your head spin, considering the ostensibly-happy ending of the film is that the KKK keep black people from voting. But he was so put off by accusations of intolerance that he decided to make his next movie an epic morality tale about the evils of intolerance, titled in its full form: Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (a 3+ hour movie with an apparently all-white cast, where black people make a split-second cameo as train porters...don't blink).

And "throughout the ages" is the emphasis. Intolerance is, in fact, four different stories about the price of intolerance, each set in a different time period: the Fall of Babylon, the Death of Christ, the Massacre of the Hugeunots, and a modern tale, concerning labor strikes, city crime, and social crusaders. The film hops back and forth between the stories, as each arcs and climaxes at the same time. It's a technical achievement, the biggest film of its day, and a step forward in narrative complexity. Audiences at the time were baffled, but its stature has become legendary in its own way. And since its ideological content is far less troubling, Intolerance--which diplomatically replaced Birth on the American Film Institute's most recent Top 100 list--is the canonical way to give Griffith his due as a filmmaker without praising a film that essentially functions as KKK propaganda. Much ink on this has already been spilled, and for anyone who wishes to know more about Birth of a Nation and its problematic place in film history, I would actually recommend this essay from Ebert.

Intolerance remains equally praised in the world of film, but less prominent in American history. So with a mixture of curiosity and tentative cynicism, I sat down and watched all 197 minutes of Birth of a Nation's lesser known and relatively inoffensive younger sibling.

And I have to say, almost a hundred years later, the sheer scope of it remains staggering. The amount of sets, costumes, and extras--in the earliest age of film technology--is jaw-dropping. As an example, here's a shot of Babylon:

And that's just for one fraction of the movie.

There's also the court of the French royal family, a car vs. train race, a menagerie of animals, a monumental siege, and what appears to be an Bronze Age flame-tank. In short, the embodiment of old Hollywood spectacle to the nth degree.

As for its ideological content, Intolerance is fairly but not entirely unproblematic . Most of the movie is devoted to preaching basic messages about how Intolerance with a capital "I" is wrong. Different sides barrel towards war based on sanctimony, greed, or misunderstanding, and good people are caught in the middle. Often, the lesson is delivered bluntly with a title card (NOTE: The title cards often have a NOTE at the bottom, much like this one, to offer surface-level or oversimplified historical tidbits). "Simple," in fact, is a good way to sum up the film's worldview.

The more objectionable parts come in the 20th century story, where one of the many villains Griffith sees descending in the modern world is a group of frumpy suffragettes hell-bent on "reform." To be fair, the villainous reform they have in mind is not women's rights, but a crusade against social behavior they deem immoral, such as dancing (think of it as a Wilson era Footloose). So that, per se, is not too problematic. But then you have this title card, in which, with customary subtlety, the narrator informs us: "When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second option."

The idea that such a sentiment--not to mention the film's rather traditional, homogeneous view of paradise--might foster the very intolerance Griffith wishes to denounce is an irony that sails cheerfully over the film's head. If nothing else, Griffith's body of work makes for a handy artifact on how we all share the same basic abstract values of love and fairness, but can be totally blind to the ways we break them.

But moments like that are relatively small, at least by the standards of retrospective politics. The bulk of Intolerance is more like a big-budgeted after school special, and the explicit messages are, for the most part, simply those kind of basic abstract ethics that I'm sure more or less everyone can get behind. Some of it actually hits a moral potency--peace, love, understanding, and even a kind of religious pluralism. Admittedly, its pluralism is limited to sects of Christianity and ancient Babylonian religions that have long since ceased to be politicized. But hey, baby steps.

So how does Intolerance hold up as a movie/film/not a historical artifact? I have to say, it weaves its narratives together admirably, but as a story it's not terribly exciting, which is a consequence when surprise takes a backseat to theme. Most of it is spent preaching a very direct point about societal ills. It's not that its targets--hypocrites, warmongers, self-righteous moralizers--are particularly objectionable, just that sermons aren't as interesting as drama, at least not over 197 minutes. During the running time, there are a lot of moments, both big and small, that hold up very well. But largely, with few compelling or surprising plot turns, it basically boils down to a message and a spectacle.

But then, as it gets to the end: the cross-cutting! Oh, the cross-cutting! Rolling on and on for what must be the last 30 minutes, building tension into a cascade of climaxes, tragedies, and ultimately triumph. Still works.

In fact, watching Intolerance, I found it very interesting how much from the silent era has been passed down to current film and American popular culture. Examples:

--The tone of the battle scenes. I'm not quite sure how to put it. Their sense of excitement is not too far removed from Spielberg. The way the tomboyish Mountain Girl dances comically in triumph during a non-climactic battle reminds me of pretty much every comic sidekick in a Hollywood action epic. In one scene, amidst battle and chaos, a normally helpless damsel in distress knocks out a bad guy from behind with a pot--and it occurred to me that that basic action trope has been circulating in the movie industry for a century.

--The yearning for a pre-modern rural America as a kind of paradise, to be defended and restored.

--The split view of sex. Victorian purity is held up throughout as the ideal for women. And then the camera lingers with fascination on an exotic Babylonian harem, as scantily clad women recline luxuriantly for long takes. This may have less to do with Griffith than the nature of the movie industry; the scenes were reportedly added after the powers-that-be requested that the film have more sex. Still, moral values sit side by side with the principle of "sex sells," which is a longstanding cultural trend if there ever was one.

Hell, even its size seems like a distinctly American heritage. If there's one thing about world cinema history that seems inarguable, it's that America makes the biggest movies. See James Cameron, who once proclaimed that "size does matter," and who's set out to make the biggest film of the time, for several times in a row. And giant, pet-projects epics expressing a personal populist sentiment have popped up in the new millenium as well. Just see Mel Gibson.

Ultimately, if this boils down to a review, I can't really recommend seeing Intolerance for most people (and I know you were planning to). Film history completists with a free afternoon can go wild, but it's largely a question of "having had" seen it, rather than seeing it.

But I should also say that none of my hesitancy has to do with it being a silent film, a medium that holds up incredibly well in an age when everyone is piling on stimuli. The avant-garde ones still have an edge, yes, but what first surprised me was how many are still gripping--easy to follow, smoothly paced--after almost 100 years. For anyone who's never seen a silent film and is curious about how it can be as good as anything with sound, I'd recommend starting with this one.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Ricky Gervais Show - A Paean Followed by a Critique

I'm a fan of Ricky Gervais, and have been since a friend of mine lent me a copy of the original British version of The Office on DVD. The Office, which Gervais co-authored with his partner Stephen Merchant, was wildly and hilariously witty, but also showed a surprisingly heartbreaking pathos for the ongoing struggles and fading dreams of ordinary people (this last feat being one that I've never seen the American Office, though hilarious in its own right, fully live up to). Extras followed in a similar vein, at its best hitting a bull's eye with a clever, satirical, and hilariously tragic view of show business. What you can easily see from following The Office and Extras, aside from their wit, is that Merchant and Gervais write very dark comedy, but love their characters too much to ever let it all turn out badly.

Aside from those two shows, Gervais and Merchant have a record-breaking podcast, and Gervais recently hosted the Golden Globes. (I should say, for the interest of balance, that I'm not entirely without reservations: I think that sometimes Gervais takes the darker elements of his work a bit far--where bitterness, insecurity, and misanthropy go beyond comedy and into, well, bitterness, insecurity, and misanthropy.)

So naturally, I was curious about his third show--titled The Ricky Gervais Show and basically an animated version of his podcast--but not curious enough to seek out someplace that carried HBO. Which is why I was happy when HBO posted the first episode for free online here.

And I have to say, it's an odd concept: the entire show is built around derisively laughing at one person.

That person is a bloke named Karl Pilkington--their dim radio producer--who sits, in cartoon form, next to cartoon Gervais and cartoon Merchant. The basic arc of the show is that Gervais and Merchant coax Karl into spouting off nonsense, then find witty ways to call him an idiot for 22 minutes (accompanied by animated visual aides, to provide flavor). It's like being with a group of friends and noticing, with forlorn resignation, the guy who everyone keeps around just to laugh at. Really, after the first 2 minutes, where he's insulted several times before he even has a line, I just kind of felt sorry for the guy. It seemed like a thankless job.

At the very least, it makes clear the link between comedy and schadenfreude. It's an arguably (okay, definitely) mean-spirited conceptual core for a show, though I have to admit I chuckled plenty of times. (Comedy: gaze upon the darkness of the human soul.)

There's certainly more to Gervais's and Merchant's podcast than that, but laughing at Karl is placed upfront as the focus of the TV program. Newcomers will see little else. And I have to wonder if this will be able to solidify into a regular thing. Will people--by which I mean a probably coastal demographic of HBO subscribers--set aside time in their schedule and tune in weekly to make fun of a guy? Is that just what we do with comedy anyway? Or is it different when the object of mockery is a real person (unlike, say, Homer Simpson)? Maybe it's not. Pilkington is an executive producer of the show, so at the very least, he stands to gain from selling himself as a cartoon punching bag. Maybe not such a thankless job after all, but definitely a bizarre dynamic. Perhaps everything latent about comedy is now explicit.

Still, I'm curious where they take it next, and I like the idea of cartoon non-fiction. The stream-of-consciousness potential of animation goes well with the stream-of-consciousness nature of podcasting. Inquiring minds can check it out.

For a more bite-sized taste of the Gervais and Merchant podcast, I would recommend their analysis of James Bond, which involves over-thinking a media property that damn well insists you don't think too hard about it (sort of the moviehound, non-revolutionary equivalent of "truth to power"). No Karl involved.

And if you've never seen the British Office, I'd highly recommend the first series (only six episodes...they do things differently over there) which remains a thing of comic beauty.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Now Linked to Critelli Comedy

In an act that further blurs the line between camaraderie and shameless promotion (synergy!), The Perpetual Present is now linked with Critelli Comedy! Critelli Comedy is the website of Mike Critelli, a friend of mine and a very funny stand-up comedian.

To link comedy and media criticism (and which, I ask you, is more ironic?), I direct you to his analysis of Dodge's Super Bowl ad or the widespread post-Avatar funk. So few comedians these days are willing to draw parallels between themselves and Marlon Brando. Enjoy...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I like being subjective, but that might just be me

Opening with the mandatory This is My Blog post:

This is my blog.

It will be a running commentary on film specifically and media in general, founded on the principle that nothing is too insignificant to merit serious over-thinking (or if it is, the internet is the perfect place for it). Basically, everything from the latest Hollywood blockbusters to art films to whatever the hell is happening on Lost can become the stuff of sincere cultural criticism.



Normally, the posts will be short. But opening the whole thing with a short post seems like an anticlimactic beginning, not to mention no fun.

So to begin, and in the spirit of year-end retrospectives, I present my Top 16 Movies of 2009 (15 was too few and 17 would be excessive). List-making is a shady and hazardous business: numerical rankings are kind of reductive, and I haven't seen everything. But this should at least be a start.

Most people I talk to seem to remember 2009 as a lost year for movies—not to mention the year when Zak Snyder turned Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" into a dirge at the funeral for subtlety. But looking back on it, there were also a lot of very good movies filling in the cracks and closing out the decade in style. I'll say "favorite" because "best" is a loaded word, and one that doesn't acknowledge personal preference. (Not to mention that by 2009, I mean a film's theatrical release in America, though some have been making the festival rounds for longer). And so, my eclectic favorites of 2009, and the ones that positively defined the year for me:

16. Avatar
As it becomes a box office sensation, I’ve heard Avatar charged with many things, from ushering in a new era of cinema, to being over-hyped non-art, to (oddly enough) leading our children towards the day-glo allure of paganism. My own take on it: its lead actor has one facial expression; it has its fair share of holes and convenient coincidences; it hits all the familiar plot points with clockwork regularity; its environmental message feels neither novel nor organic (pun intended); and if I never hear “I See You” playing from the car next to me, I’ll be happy. But right from the opening shots, Avatar can pull you in with an earnest dedication to its own hokum, and I’m willing to drink the Kool-Aid and praise the film for what it is: a gloriously detailed technological marvel, and a fun (if familiar) adventure story with a metaphysical twist. And in a tentpole era where Transformers 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 go in circles for gruelingly excessive lengths, here’s a two and a half hour flick that can more legitimately claim to be epic rather than just long. (Plus, its “foreign race needs a white male hero” subtext is less overtly troubling than it is in, say, The Last Samurai, because we can pretend it’s all about aliens rather than a reflection of deep-rooted ideology. Fun times.)

15. Summer Hours
You can generally spot a foreign art film by a simple, lyrical title about something found in the everyday/natural world, like Wild Strawberries or An Autumn Afternoon. Summer Hours, in this vein, moves with an episodic structure that dips in and out of its characters’ lives—covering a period of time and moments of conflict without breaking from the naturalistic feel. Along the way, it waxes insightful about the purpose of art, the trends of globalization, and the torch being passed from one generation to the next. Beautifully acted and filmed.

14. Up
I loved Up, but not without reservations. Mainly, I feel that there are two sides to it. The opening section (Carl growing old) is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen in any category—children’s, adult’s, animated, live-action, anything. But during the jungle adventure—concerning a mad explorer and a hundred talking dogs—I felt that it turned into a far more ordinary children’s cartoon. Not a bad one, and certainly entertaining, but also unsurprising, a bit incongruous, not fully fleshed out (a rarity for Pixar), and nowhere near the heights of the opening. So for me, there are two ways of looking at Up: either it retreats from its weightier themes, or it takes a kid’s flick and gently slips in a gorgeous meditation on old age. I prefer to think the latter, and either way Up is another winner, with some of the most touching and memorable moments of the year.

13. The Brothers Bloom
At the very least, the latest from Rian Johnson (Brick) deserves notice as one of the more unfairly critically maligned movies of the year, getting mixed reviews and disappearing fast. In all fairness, it’s likely to lose anyone looking for a comic caper a la Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. But we already have a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and that’s really not what this is. It's not about who gets the money, but about storytelling. It’s a fable about living in fiction versus living in reality, with a surprisingly potent emotional core of brotherly love. It’s not a perfect movie. It may be too bright, shiny, and cute for its own good, a few jokes seem a bit off, and the end is a tad muddy. But it’s smooth and energetic, full of lively and heartfelt performances.

12. Star Trek
Star Trek, with all its many offspring, is one of the few properties of traditional American geekdom that I’m not very familiar with, so I can only judge it as a movie, not as part of a franchise. And as a movie, it’s not so much a masterpiece as what, in a perfect world, every Hollywood blockbuster would be: a well-structured story carried by an engaging cast. More importantly, it knows how to use special effects: not just to throw in tons of visual stimuli (though there are plenty), but to flesh out a detailed fantasy world, which is what special effects have always been necessary for. The glowing space-scapes—and the camera’s roving path inside the ship—shoot for a sense of wonder that only adds to the fun. Anyone who doesn’t like blockbuster tentpoles (the in-jokes, the third act predictability) is unlikely to be won over by anything new. But Star Trek started the summer on a high note that the rest of the season never lived up to. Plus, you have to give credit for using dubious time travel mechanics to make a sequel and a reboot at the same time.

11. Where the Wild Things Are
The sort of movie you love not just in spite of its flaws, but because of them: a beautiful and strange monster that came rumpus-ing out of the studio system. The beginning captures the energy and loneliness of childhood like no other movie I’ve seen. The ending—a view of familial love that’s warm but not cheap—is a thing of beauty. And the journey in the middle is a unique vision of the pros and cons of anarchy: the joy of the letting the wild things out, and the need to rein them in. Likely too abstract and scary for children, but too fantastical for adults, Wild Things hits a kind of zeitgeist in the in-between. By the way, is this something new? We seem to be living at a time when the 18-to-25 demographic is embracing their inner child en masse. People my age look forward to Harry Potter, Pixar films, and Disney princesses as much as any kid. Have young adults always been this nostalgic? Did something change? Is it a reflection of young people reluctantly entering adulthood in a volatile world, or is that just too poetic to be true? I’ll leave that question to sociologists. On a similar note, moving into the Top 10…

10. Coraline
Exhibit X that we live in a golden age of animation: a fairy tale from Neil Gaiman by way of Henry Selick. It’s dark, as fairy tales are, and it writes its plucky-but-self-absorbed heroine accordingly (most movies cast children as either adorably precocious or adorably naïve, but Coraline knows better). And the beautifully moody creepiness certainly captures something of childhood: the phase of your life when something as patently absurd as “people with buttons for eyes” could keep you up at night.

9. The Hurt Locker
What first struck me about this year’s Oscar frontrunner was how straightforward it was. It’s rooted in action movies right down to the banter, and its interpersonal drama can largely be reduced to the age-old conflict between the straight-arrow and the maverick who plays by his own rules. So I can’t really say that it’s that interesting of an approach to the War Movie, but that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s thrillingly well put-together, and its lack of political posture on a heavily politicized issue gives it a kind of character-driven purity. Its mood of tension and chaos, of no visible enemy but a constant pending threat, certainly evokes a different kind of war zone. After all, the movie isn’t structured around any overarching mission—just a countdown to the end of the tour.

8. In the Loop
Focused on the mid-level political strata, In the Loop is, essentially, a back-and-forth screwball comedy where what’s on the line is nothing less than whether or not a war breaks out. Most importantly, this British comedy cleverly avoids the two main pitfalls of failed movie satire: it doesn’t go too far (making its point so heavy that it feels abrasive), and it doesn’t pull away at the last minute (giving a pat happy ending, as if to take it all back). One thing that struck me, though, by the time it opened this summer, was that it felt like a victim of timeliness: six months into the Obama administration, when everyone’s worried about bailouts, health care, and economic death-spirals, a satire of Bush era foreign policy already seemed surprisingly out of date. And this late arrival, if I had to guess, could be a big reason that it didn’t cause more of a stir. But the script is fast and funny, and the cast is perfect. James Gandolfini, as a weary general, may be the movie’s grounded, emotional center. But special notice also has to go to Tom Hollander, as a British politician who’s been handled by PR men for so long that he isn’t sure where he actually stands. Not to mention Peter Capaldi, as the foul-mouthed Scotsman who does the handling.

7. Up in the Air
I remember that when this came out, the all-wise Tomatometer said that it had “just enough edge for mainstream audiences,” and it occurred to me that “just edgy enough for the mainstream” is a fine description of director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking, Juno). His main characters start out as too cool for school and invariably have sentimental epiphanies. And films like Smoking—and, to a certain extent, Up in the Air—mix sharp satire with an unchallenging reverence for the American Way. However, this mixture of sentimentality and (softened) edge is not inappropriate for a film about humanism triumphing over more “shark”-like impulses. The script snaps, crackles, and never slows down or wastes time, and all three leads earn their Oscar buzz. I know a lot of people found the movie to be a downer, which in large part it is. But it’s ultimately as uncertain as its title, and strangely enough, I see it as hopeful.

6. Gomorrah
A decade of “hyperlink” dramas (Traffic, Crash, Syriana, Babel) closes with one of the strongest: five loosely connected stories set in a Naples crime clan. It doesn’t really try to force melodrama; it prefers a kind of detached realism. It doesn’t really try to bring everyone together; in fact, the fragmented narrative makes the characters feel small, separate, and helpless. Many people will undoubtedly find it boring. But for those inclined to hop on its wavelength, it cultivates a bizarrely mesmerizing atmosphere of dread, loneliness, and chaos, with tiny moments of grotesque comedy. And it has some of the most perfect photography of the year, with a camera that simultaneously feels cut loose and always in the right place at the right time.

5. Inglourious Basterds
I can never tell how significant Quentin Tarantino means to be, or if he’s really just having fun. Case in point is Inglourious Basterds, which raises all sorts of disturbing, provocative questions about the fascistic nature of action films—but then, instead of answering the questions, it shoots them 50 times in the face and burns the motherfucker down. Its ballsy affront to history is, oddly, one of the more truthful things about it: movies are not history, even the more prestigious ones that claim it as their basis. And so long as it’s all wish fulfillment, why not go all-out? If anything, Tarantino is a man for his time and place because he makes clear that reality has been replaced by a (reality-ish) dream world as the subject for films. But all of that just makes Inglourious Basterds one of the most interesting films of the year. What places it high on this list is that it is, well, one the best: an engaging plot full of vivid characters, smooth direction, sharp humor, and a knack for suspense-building that Sergio Leone would approve of.

4. An Education
When I saw the trailer, I dismissed An Education as the kind of bland gentility that gets pumped into arthouses every awards season (period costumes, British accents, etc.). But how unfair I was. The film, in a nutshell: an intelligent but naïve teenage girl, stifled by school and her parents’ ambitious hopes, gets seduced by an older man who’s so charming that you can almost forget he’s clearly up to no good. And along the way, she learns that mistakes don’t ruin you, that she’s stronger than she expected, and that adults are people like any other—both wiser and more clueless than she gives them credit for. If that all sounds like a cliché, it is. But here’s a movie that can give its truisms dramatic vitality, which is a rare thing, even at Oscar season. It does get too pat at the end, but the script by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) cleverly balances humor and drama to make for a beautifully observed coming-of-age story. And Carey Mulligan, brilliantly convincing as the teenage Jenny, gives arguably the Leading Lady performance of the year.

3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s departure from live action—which for him was always a little cartoony to begin with—is lovingly animated and beautifully detailed. Best of all, with his last film almost completely overrun by mannered bourgeois ennui, Fox reclaims the mischief of his earliest works: the Bottle Rocket vibe of imaginative dreamers who come up with needlessly complicated schemes because simple ones are no fun. Stellar all around, from the animation, to the music, to the script, to some of the most heartfelt deadpan to grace an indie age where irony is starting to feel cheap. All of which is not to shortchange how well it accomplishes a simple goal. The fact that this didn’t find much of an audience at the box office—when really, it offers everything a family film is supposed to, and more—stands as one of the bigger injustices of the year. Though it’s too soon to make such a drastic statement, Fox (brace yourself) may replace the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka as the best Roald Dahl adaptation.

2. The White Ribbon
In a small German village on the eve of World War I, a surface of pastoral innocence hides an undercurrent of private lives, secrets, and repressed desires. And this quietly simmering tension slowly but surely finds an outlet in a series of unsolved, seemingly random acts of violence. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Cache), who won the Palme d’Or for this film, excels at making the personal political, and belongs to a rare group of filmmakers who can grip you with a slow pace and unnerve you with silence. Tense, tragic, and hauntingly inconclusive, The White Ribbon is an allegory of denial, of oppression and control, of violence being passed down through the generations. It’s also a reminder that black & white can be as vivid as color: its palette is made up of the blackest blacks and the whitest whites and every ghoulish shade of grey in between. (For arthouse mavens, it rivals anything I’ve seen from Bergman.) See it on the big screen if you can, preferably in a near-empty theater.

1. A Serious Man
Oh boy. I know I’m going to catch some flak for putting this at #1. About half the people I know who saw it absolutely loved it, and the other half were completely put off, so definitely chalk this up as a not-for-everyone movie. But as the Coen brothers’ latest (and arguably most personal) film gets overlooked for a lot of the major awards, I feel like I have to stand by it. It's one of the saddest and funniest movies of the year. And to what extent a movie--any movie--can be seen as both at the same time depends very much on the audience.

In a small Jewish community in suburban Minnesota, a fairly secular college professor, spurred on by personal problems, goes on something of a spiritual quest to make sense of his life. Essentially, the Coen brothers present the Big Questions (about meaning, about god) as a kind of cosmic joke, where the punchline is that there’s no answer. It’s an unpredictable film, a twisting narrative filled with bizarre comedy and the Coens’ knack for dialogue and characterization. And it makes good use of its 1960s period setting: a lilywhite Age of Innocence suburb, with Summer of Love anarchy calling like a siren from off-camera.

The Coen brothers' work has long been filled with ambiguous symbolism and a dedication to formal pleasure—which is something I've seen them criticized for, with the argument that it comes at the expense of emotional insight. Arguably, A Serious Man coheres the ambiguity and formal pleasure into a potent statement. It’s a comedy of uncertainty, where science and faith both come up short, societal standards can't be trusted, and the ultimate truth is nothing that can't be learned from a pop song.

The Coens maintain the sort of distance from their characters normally reserved for Kubrick, which is likely to put off a lot of people. But it feels almost ruefully fitting symbol of its time and place: an escalating series of woes that at first play out like grim camp, but strike home at the end. At the very least, it shows that somewhere between the modern and postmodern eras, existential pain grew a wicked sense of humor. It is, if not their best film, a thematic capstone in the Coen brothers' career.


There are many strong movies this year that aren't on here: great movies that missed a spot list, small gems, or otherwise noteworthy films. So for making moviegoing in 2009 worthwhile, stand up and take a bow: District 9, Drag Me to Hell, 500 Days of Summer, The Girlfriend Experience, Goodbye Solo, Humpday, Moon, Public Enemies, and You the Living.


There it is. A decade is gone, and will soon undoubtedly be the subject of American Graffiti-style nostalgia films featuring iPods and Paris Hilton. Bring on the new decade. Come on, we can take it.