Thursday, July 15, 2010

My Favorite Fifty of 2009

While such a list might seem frivolous at this stage in my film blog, I still felt it a necessary point to provide closure to the project. Furthermore, probably the greater purpose of this post is to provide a breakdown of some "must see films" for those of you who share my movie tastes. Keep in mind that these are not the fifty films I felt were objectively the best. This list is entirely subjective and is comprised of my favorite fifty films that I saw last year (that ranking based solely on enjoyability). I didn't count entries that I'd seen before, in part or in whole ("Shawshank Redemption," "Phase IV," "The Last Wave," etc) nor did I count seasons of television shows ("Dexter," "Twin Peaks," MST3K entries). In creating this list, I simply collected the titles for all the films I ranked at a 4/5 or higher and asked myself: "If I could watch only one of these movies again, which would it be?" and after one was selected, I continued in that manner. Preamble aside, here's the breakdown. (Note: all my reviews of these films are still posted on this blog).


1. Picnic at Hanging Rock - A brilliant exercise in atmosphere and obsession. My late best friend hailed it as one of his favorite films and as such, one of my great regrets is not having watched this with him.

2. Into the Wild - A more romantic depiction of a life on the road there has never been. It was the perfect film to watch on my road trip to the Grand Canyon and I struggled to fight back man tears.

3. Le Cercle Rouge - Jean-Pierre Melville at his finest, demonstrating that the French really are badasses.

4. Day of the Locust - Hysterical and terrifying all at once, this is a film I keep revisiting like a hard drug.

5. Inglorious Basterds - Tarantino's finest slice of cinematic masturbation to date - history told from a thirteen year-old's mentality.

6. Dementia - A nightmarish, dialog-free film noir that still leaves me amazed that it was ever made, much less in the 1950's.

7. Russian Ark - The yang to Dementia's yin, this dreamy tour through three-hundred years of Russian history concentrates more on mesmerizing the viewer than educating him.

8. The Lost Skeleton Returns Again - Hands down, the funniest film I saw last year. There were times I feared I was going to vomit from long segues of guffawing.

9. Black Narcissus - I became a fan of the Powell/Pressberger team through a number of their opuses, but this Technicolor marvel is their masterpiece.

10. Fitzcarraldo - A character study of a hopeless dreamer and a madman that also serves as an allegory for the Herzog's uncanny filmmaking.

11. Peur(s) du Noir - At it's worst, this film is a bit uneven, but it's anthology of sumptuous ghost stories told through varying forms of excellent animation is still a welcome change from the conventional animated fare.

12. Seance on a Wet Afternoon - A meditative caper surrounding a delusional psychic and her henpecked hubby is, at times, more Hitchcockian than Hitchcock.

13. Interstella 5555 - Basing a story around a preexisting pop CD is a unique concept for an animated film and thankfully the result is a kinetic, pumping ride.

14. Long Weekend - A film that continues to chill me upon repeat viewings and a paranoia-infused story that redefines the animal-attack genre for horror.

15. District 9 - The best surprise of 2009's summer, this allegory of apartheid and the foolhardy measures to alleviate it was as through-provoking as it was entertaining.

16. Europa - From the moment Max von Sydow's voice carries you into another world, this hypnotic, post-war world, you're hooked, and in the end, you're left thinking what a shame it is that this film represents the zenith of everything Lars von Trier has worked so hard to eschew in his filmmaking.

17. A Face in the Crowd - There's no looking at Andy Griffith the same after he uses his "aw shucks" grin and guitar strumming to woo America into feeding his crazed, megalomaniacal ways.

18. Hot Fuzz - How do you make one of the best parodies of the action genre possible? Easy - you create a caricature of the genre, filled with more fights and explosions than can be counted and the laughs come naturally.

19. Zombieland - Two overtired genres: the zombie flick and the "awkward teen wants the girl" romedy are infused with new life in this delightful amalgamation.

20. The Big Clock - Ticking with more tension than the name may suggest, Charles Laughton steals the scene as a punctuality-obsessed murderer who was undoubtedly the inspiration for Bob Kane's Clock King.

21. King of Kong - Competition in the video game world never looked fiercer than it does in this documentary set on the 8-bit plane.

22. Vampire Circus - This epitome of "guilty pleasure" still has never received a DVD release, which is a shame since it's one of the most entertaining entries in the Hammer Studios legacy.

23. Withnail & I - Richard Griffiths steals the show as a licentious thespian who lusts after the drug-addled duo of protagonists in this comedy that could be easily likened to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

24. Ace in the Hole - Billy Wilder and Kirk Douglas are both at the top of their game in this social commentary on corruption in the media - a theme that continues to resonate today.

25. Onibaba - A stylish, cautionary tale about succumbing to temptation that unfolds like a folk tale told around the fire.

26. Elephant - Gus Van Sant's depiction of a school shooting makes the pit of your stomach drop because it provides no easy, Hollywood-inspired heroes or cliches, making it seem all too real.

27. Waltz with Bashir - The fact that this did not win the Best Animated Oscar is proof as to how Pixar-centric the Academy is, especially since the animation is used to mask the traumatic memories of war rather than to make an animal talk for the sake of easy entertainment. Then again, it probably would have won had it not been released the same year as...

28. WALL-E - I still find "Waltz with Bashir" the more powerful of the two films, but damned if that little robot doesn't tug at the heart-strings by exhibiting more humanity than most actors.

29. Burn, Witch, Burn - Superstition and witchcraft are at the heart of this tale that analyzes how a rational man would deal with the supernatural if confronted with it.

30. Dead Ringers - I long felt that Jeremy Irons was the shit. Watching him turn in two tortured performances in the roles of twin gynecologists is just the icing on the cake.

31. Star Trek - This film easily ranks up there with "Casino Royale" or "Batman Begins" in terms of franchise reboots that failed to disappoint (all of it's implausibilities aside).

32. Yellow Submarine - Who needs drugs when the movie takes care of the acid trips for you?

33. Elevator to the Gallows - A darkly humorous slice of French New Wave surrounding a "perfect plan" that goes horrendously awry thanks to a weekend stay in an elevator.

34. Paths of Glory - This dethrones "Joyeux Noel" as my favorite World War I film, both for its dark tone and for the simple fact that George MacReady is so damned surreptitious and evil.

35. Murder on the Orient Express - A cavalcade of prominent actors, headed by Albert Finney, makes this the most enjoyable Poirot adaptation I've seen to date.

36. Downfall - Before it became an Internet meme, this film was a heart-wrenching look at Hitler's last days in his bunker.

37. The Shout - Another Aussie flick that leaves the viewer wondering where Aboriginal spirituality ends and insanity begins thanks to its unreliable narrator.

38. Atonement - Simply put: tracking shots don't make a movie, but I'll be damned if they don't make them memorable.

39. L.A. Confidential - This sizzling neo-noir made a handful of careers (Crowe, Pearce, Basinger, etc) with its outstanding bad the nation was too swept up in Titanic Fever in 1997.

40. To Live - Before Yimou Zhang became famous for his visual style in films like "Hero" or "House of Flying Daggers," he made a heartwarming yarn about the strength of family in times of turmoil and national upheaval.

41. Kiss of Death - I never understood why either Victor Mature or Richard Widmark had the "star status" they did until I saw them show their dark sides (particularly by the latter) in this depraved story of betrayal in the criminal underworld.

42. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - My pal Dave Levy said it best: "The greatest character actor film of all time."

43. Crimes and Misdemeanors - Woody Allen's most introspective drama yields the performance of a career by Martin Landau as an opthamologist who contemplates murder as an easy out to an adulterous affair.

44. Madamoiselle - Jeanne Moreau plays her role like a clenched fist in this cinematic psychoanalysis of the madness that can arise as a result of repressed sexuality.

45. The Wrestler - I can understand Mickey Rourke not winning Best Actor for his performance in this film, for it is an accommodating allegory for many elements of his life. That still doesn't diminish it's powerhouse impact on your heart.

46. Advise and Consent - Typically the terms 'political' and 'thriller' are to words that I find contradictory. Not so in Preminger's scathing critique of the United States' political machine.

47. The Lives of Others - A superb story that exhibits the curse of conscience in wartime (even during a Cold War).

48. Election - Despite my being a teacher and finding the humor all too real, Alexander Payne's directorial debut is still a fabulous mockery of the politics and education.

49. My Dinner With Andre - Logically speaking, a two-hour film that's nothing more than a filmed conversation sounds boring as hell, but damned if I didn't find myself as engrossed in the anecdotes as Wallace Shawn does.

50. Timecrimes - I was actually torn between this film and "Primer" for rounding out the list. Ironic since both are tales of time travel that dismiss flicks like "Back to the Future" as nonsense and positively boggle the mind.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Days 347-361: Titles and Ranks will vary

Okay, despite my having summer off from job #2, I seem to have my time consumed just as bad as before. Ergo, I'll try to sum up the final fifteen films I took in during my year of "a new movie a day" as succinctly as possible. Yes, I know it's sad that I stay busy to the point that it's come to this. C'est la vie, I suppose. Anyway, while I sadly fell short of my 2009 New Year's Resolution, it was only by four entries. I've been consoled that technically, I probably exceeded the goal, since I counted entire television series seasons as a single entry (like the 22 hours of Twin Peaks Season Two was counted the same as an hour and a half film would be), but I don't share such sentiment. Be that as it may, it was still a fun experiment that got me indulging in a number of films that I may never have seen. That being said, here are the last fifteen I've been needing to review for seven months (shit, I am lazy):


Day 347: Blackboard Jungle (1955) - Rank 3.5/5 - A melodramatic look at tough schools and the instructors that grapple with the mad students that roam their halls. This film sparked the creation of a subgenre that has influenced countless followers (from Dead Poets Society to Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit), including yet another treacly subgenre, the inspirational sports movie (Coach Carter, Friday Night Lights, etc.) Glenn Ford turns in an excellent performance and even Sidney Poitier makes an early appearance as a thug - a bad bit of karma that would come to bite him in the ass as we see with the next entry...


Day 348: To Sir, With Love (1967) - Rank 4/5 - The plot of this film is essentially the same as "Blackboard Jungle," except Poitier is now on the defensive end as the school instructor. Less ass-kicking and more love power than its predecessor makes it seem a little less dated, though not by much. It's Poitier's performance that makes this movie.


Day 349: The Prize (1963) - Rank 3.5/5 - Paul Newman stars as a Nobel Prize winner in Literature who bumbles into uncovering a kidnapping plot surrounding a German physicist (Edward G. Robinson). The film bears a remarkable Hitchcockian influence and it's far more enthralling than Newman and Hitchcock's collaboration - "Torn Curtain." However, there are moments where it seems like the director is working too hard to pay homage to the master of suspense, sacrificing serious tension in the process.


Day 350: A Scanner Darkly (2006) - Rank 4.5/5 - Paranoia-fueled double-dealing in a not-too-distant future injects a great deal of life into this animated Richard Linklater adaptation of a Philip K. Dick tale. Reeves turns in an excellent performance, all jokes about his wooden soliloquizing aside, as an undercover cop that begins to lose both his mind and his identity while investigating a motley crew of eccentric hoods (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, etc.). The unique blend of conspiracy madness and psychedelic animation leaves you with a high after watching.


Day 351: King of Kings (1961) - Rank 3.5/5 - An epic in the vein of "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments." This time, the Christian topic of cinema is the life of Jesus Christ. Such a theme could easily turn into a dogmatic slice of Catholic propaganda, but the religious themes never feel overbearing (granted, that's coming from someone who was raised Catholic, so I'm sure my objectivity is a tad skewed, but I scarcely think of myself as having an altar boy mentality). Production values are as lavish as the palace of Herod (and Salome's dance for John the Baptist's head is quite the spectacle). The performances are acceptable, but far from exceptional, though be sure to watch for Rip Torn in an early role as Judas.


Day 352: Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) - Rank 3/5 - If you can't determine the plot of the movie by the title, then it's a sad state of affairs for you. The plot is a fairly conventional one - aliens start attacking Earth after the foolish humans take the offensive position at the onset of the film's exposition. However, what makes it more nostalgic and watchable are the special effects by Ray Harryhausen, which boast a destruction of Washington D.C., paving the scorched way for Joe Viskocil.


Day 353: Warrior of the Lost World (1983) - Rank 2/5 - A Mad Max ripoff that features Donald Pleasance humbling himself for a meager paycheck. 'Nuff said.


Day 354: Diner (1982) - Rank 3.5/5 - The film that put Barry Levinson (as well as its stars, such as Steve Guttenberg and Kevin Bacon) on the map is a series of nights spent boasting over greasy burgers and colas. It's akin to the directorial efforts of other auteurs who utilized their Hollywood budgets to recreate their childhoods ("American Graffiti," "Dazed and Confused," "SLC Punk," etc), but the overall tale lacks the cohesion that brings it up to their level.


Day 355: You Can Count On Me (2000)- Rank 4/5 - A single mother's world is turned upside-down when her estranged, rakish brother crashes back into her life. What could have easily been a conventional and forgettable plot is made noteworthy be outstanding performances by Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick. Even Rory Culkin holds his own. Only writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is painfully intolerable in his brief, self-indulgent role.


Day 356: Little Otik (2004) - Rank 4.5/5 - This Czech folk tale comes across as a nightmare under the guise of the creator behind Alice. A barren wife is gifted with a tree stump carved to resemble a child by her henpecked husband. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, the woman begins to believe that it's really an actual child to the point that the stump comes to life. The result is what you'd get if you slipped acid into Ray Harryhausen's coffee cup. Once the child eats the family cat, leaving behind a mangled pile of fur, blood and bones, the story enters a very dark territory that plunges ever deeper into the horrific realm of disturbing children's tales.


Day 357: Night of the Blood Beast (1958) - Rank 1.5/5 - An astronaut comes back to Earth, dead at first, but later is reanimated, laden with a belly full of aliens. What should have been fun 1950's B-grade horror schlock ended up as an exercise in tedium.


Days 358-360: It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (2005-2008) - I'd only seen one episode of this show prior to buying the entire series (or at least as many as there are available on DVD). I have no regrets in my spending. The antics of "I Love Lucy" mixed with the indolence and selfishness of "Seinfeld" yields a match made in heaven. Danny DeVito as the foul-mouthed patriarch of this clan of petty individuals is the icing on the cake.


Day 361: Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) - Rank 5/5 - The influence of Richard Matheson on this modern ghost yarn is both obvious and welcome. A professor of folklore learns that his wife is a witch and when he forces her to cease all her "superstitious" ways, he finds himself the target of other masters of the black arts. Comparable with the mood and theme of "Curse of the Demon," this was an excellent finish to my experiment.

Well, there's the last of them. For those one or two people who actually follow this blog, my apologies for my inconsistency in recent months. I have too many projects for my own good...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Day 346: Cache (2006) - Rank 4.5/5


When we opened this film at the Baxter, I remember the stunning silences that accompanied the credits. Every so often, an art film comes through that leaves our octogenarian base puzzling over what the film was about (as well as wondering where they left their car keys). Needless to say, Michael Hancke's masterwork in repressed memories and emotions excels in ambiguity. Hancke's camerawork and the absence of music in most scenes to add a voyeuristic touch, as if the viewer is a third invisible party to the game that is being played with the target Georges Laurent, as he's plagued with VHS tapes that docuemnt his home and activities and grisly crayon drawings. Furthermore, I would go as far as to say that it's one of the best psychological thrillers I've seen in some time, for as you've probably already surmised, Hancke doesn't sacrifice the atmosphere he's generated by taking on a "clear-cut, Hollywood ending."

Watch the Trailer

Day 345: Fahrenheit 451 (1966) - Rank 3.5/5


One of Bradbury's most renowned books received a decent screen adaptation thanks to the expertise of Francois Truffaut. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story is set in a dystopian future where the printed word is outlawed. Guy Montag, the main protagonist, is a professional bookburner - an avocation generated by an amalgamation of Cold War fears as well as references to the Third Reich it seems. Montag decides to indulge in reading when he acquires a text during a routine burning and soon he finds his mindset shifting as the power of reading influences his mind. The story's a solid one and Truffaut's visual sense creates a bleak but visually distinct look for the future (akin to the world created in "A Clockwork Orange"). The film's main drawback is the performance by Oskar Werner as Guy Montag, a role that he woefully underplays. I'm aware that in this fictitious future that he is a mere cog, regulated by perscriptions, and a muting of emotions is to be expected, but Werner is damn near comatose for most of the film (a surprising outcome since he'd collaborated with Truffaut before). At least his performance does not detract from the story's uplifting message.

Watch the Trailer

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Day 344: The Corpse Vanishes (1942) - Rank 2/5


Ah Bela, I'll give you an extra point for ranking because I love you so, but your choice of material...ugh... The premise of the film is a familiar one - a mad scientist, grief-stricken by his wife's unsightly appearance, decides to harvest what he needs from young, nubile, virginal nymphs. Permutations of this set-up include (but certainly aren't limited to) "The Awful Dr. Orlaf," "Eyes without a Face," "The Hand that Feeds the Dead" and..."The Dark Crystal"...yeah. Not a horrendous performance by Lugosi (clearly working as best he could with what he had), but when a 62 minute feature has me anxiously looking at my watch, it's not a good thing.

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Day 343: Following (1998) - Rank 4/5


Before "The Dark Knight," "The Prestige" or even "Memento," Christopher Nolan churned out this delightful slice of neo-noir in grainy, black-and-white 16mmm film stock on the back alleys of London. It focuses on a down-and-out writer who is a "follower" - not to be confused with a stalker, for he changes his target every day - and is carrying out his peculiar habits in the hope that he will find much-needed inspiration. But when one of his marks both spots him, the man strangely welcomes the writer into his shady world of serial burglary. It's not long before the unnamed protagonist finds a load of charges, including murder, dropped in his lap as a result of the association. Nolan's characteristic, nonlinear storytelling is present, and with a great script and cast, it's no wonder that this project put him on the map and sent him on his way to bigger stuff.

Watch the Trailer

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Day 342: Le Cercle Rouge (1953) - Rank 5/5


Over time, Jean-Pierre Melville has grown to be one of my favorite French directors. "Bob le flambeur," "Le Doulos," and "Le Samourai" all smack of brilliance. But, without a doubt, "Le Cercle Rouge" happens to be his best. I know this will come as a slap in the face to those diehards that hold "Le Samourai" atop a pedestal, and rightfully so, since it turns both film noir and French new wave on their heads (like "Le Samourai," this film has a dash of Asian influence). However, the tale of a motley trio - one man an ex-con who rips off the mob on his first day out of jail, the second, an escaped convict and the third, an alcoholic, disgraced detective - out to rob a jewel store is a masterpiece of storytelling. The heist that links the three is reminiscent of "Rififi" but it's not the crux of the tale. The interactions among the three men are complex and subdued, but never convoluted. Clearly Melville at the height of his game, and it's a damned shame the man passed away a mere two years after completing the story.

Watch the Trailer