[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
1976 is a year I’m very pleased to see the back of. Several especially nice things happened to me during the past twelvemonth, but an oversupply of cloaca also insisted on hitting the fan with dispiriting frequency, and a good deal of it was cinematic cloaca. Any year in which the man who just made Nashville turns around and makes Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson, and people who really ought to know better hail Lina Wertmuller as a distaff version of the Second Coming and Network as a serious film of intellectual and aesthetic importance, and the public is asked to pay good money to watch Midway, Gable and Lombard, Won Ton Ton, The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, Scorchy, The GreatScout and Cathouse Thursday, Swashbuckler, Vigilante Force and A Star Is Born Barbra Streisand–style can’t be anything but the harbinger of a new Dark Age.
It didn’t help that some normally reliable film artists seemed ‘way off the beam. That The Magic Flute, Bergman’s not-very-adventurous filming of a Mozart performance, or Face to Face, a closet drama of a rather insipid creature who was welcome to stay in her closet (Liv Ullmann’s heroic performance notwithstanding), failed to move me much wasn’t particularly disheartening or even unexpected. (I wish he’d make a spy movie.) Neither, given the international coproduction problems and the preponderance of treacle in the basic makeup of The Blue Bird, was there great surprise in George Cukor’s inability (decision?) to just let the thing lie there and moult.
Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, partners in business and marriage, launched Milestone Films in 1990. They made a reputation for the company not merely for its restorations and revivals, but for rescuing and nurturing films that might otherwise have been drowned in the noise of the busy movie landscape, from Mikhail Kalatozov’s all but orphaned 1964 I Am Cuba to the 1972 documentary Winter Soldier (which was vilified in the 2004 presidential campaign) to, most recently, Shirley Clarke’s landmark indie The Connection. Dennis and Amy are currently raising funds to restore Clarke’s Portrait of Jason.
They are also members of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Dennis came to the 2012 convention in Seattle (Amy, unfortunately, was unable to attend), where I was able to meet up with him. In the interests of full disclosure, I have known Dennis for years and had the pleasure to be a part of the commentary track with Sherman Alexie on Milestone’s DVD release of The Exiles. I can also report that Dennis knows more about the history of American independent cinema, and the forgotten and neglected works that deserve resurrection, than anyone I know. So I asked him to name the ten American independent films most in need of restoration.
“It’s not my ten best,” he’s careful to explain, “just the ones that I could personally support with great enthusiasm. There are tons more that I could add, but if we’re doing a list of ten, this is a cool list to consider and they each have their own merits and different reasons.”
1. The Cool World (Shirley Clarke, 1964) and the short films of Shirley Clarke “We started with Shirley Clarke because we thought it would be a great project to do and I really wanted to do the complete Shirley Clarke. And the only thing we do not have rights to is The Cool World. I think that we have her best films, The Connection and Portrait of Jason are my two favorites, but to represent Shirley in her entirety and to consider her entirety, it would help to have a beautiful version of The Cool World, which hasn’t been available yet.”
For many years, I maintained a Top 10 list. It was changing all the time, but by the mid-1980s, I had pretty well nailed it down. Only by then was it a Top 12, not a Top 10, and anyone who asked me my Top 10 films got an unexpected bonus. And that was how it was until a couple of years ago, when I allowed myself the latitude of increasing my all-time favorites to a list of 15. But as a devoted game player, I respect rules and try to play by them, so for this personal Top 10 list project, I’ve forced myself to pick just 10. These are not necessarily the same 10 I would pick if my criteria were cinematic greatness, beauty, and far-reaching influence—though they easily could be. No, these are favorite films, the films that mean the most to me, the ones that give me the most and best chills. There are lots more where these came from, but for now, these are the ones. I present them in chronological order to avoid any suggestion of preference.
King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933). People tend to forget that King Kong was a sensation, and a huge success, in its day. Perhaps the first horror film that tried to humanize and empathize with its monster, it did so without making any of the mistakes of the two remakes, always keeping the monster scary. It’s easy to sympathize with a teddy bear. King Kong wrote the book on movie monsters for decades to come, and no monster movie ever did it better, or told us more about the beasts inside ourselves.
David Bordwell reminds you it’s not just red-state schoolboards that plunk down for creationism over evolution despite all evidence to the contrary; it’s also film lovers obsessed with proclaiming what they deem the first instances of a technique while disregarding the context that led to it. Returned from his latest visit to the Royal Film Archives in Brussels, Bordwell provides several lovely examples of deep-focus blocking from mostly forgotten German and Italian silents. In a subsequent post, he rhapsodizes over a magnificent shot of passengers fleeing a sinking ship from the 1918 Italian serial I Topi Grigi, and provides a link to Joseph North’s fine thesis paper on the film’s Fantomasian antihero, the mostly forgotten Za La Mort.
[Originally published in Pacific Northwest, January 1988]
• Hope and Glory: Down among the green leaves of his family’s backyard garden, young Bill Rohan (Sebastian Rice Edwards) confronts the wizard Merlin, while in the house the stillness of the adults ’round a grumbling radio signals that the Second World War has just been declared….
• The Vietnamese woman’s voice scrapes relentlessly on our eardrums until we wish anything at all would shut her up: an unforgettable scene in Platoon makes us understand, by vicariously participating, how a My Lai might have happened….
• The Dead: Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) turns from the snowy window to discover that his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston), after the most intense and revealing conversation of their life together, has fallen deeply asleep….
• Barfly: Returning from the hotel bathroom down the hall, Henry (Mickey Rourke) sits on the bed and slowly begins to wonder why the music from his radio should sound so muted. Oh, right. He’s in the wrong room….
• The wind drifts leaves across the road as Gene Hackman’s car and the camera crest a rise together—Hoosiers….
• “I’m gonna tell you something, Bonanza is not an accurate depiction of the West”: earnest breakfast discourse in Tin Men…
• Diane Keaton singing “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” New Year’s Eve 1943. Radio Days…
• Innerspace: Dennis Quaid sees his unborn child…
• On the battlefield at the end of Good Morning, Babylon, the dying brothers film each other in order that their sons will know what they looked like….
• Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) blows a dead man’s brains out: David Mamet’s most outrageous con job in The Untouchables…
Welcome 2012 with one last look back at the best releases of 2011, as seen by the contributors to Parallax View. Critics listed in reverse alphabetical order
(as posted at Salt Lake Weekly)
2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
3. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
4. 13 Assassins
6. The Tree of Life
7. Take Shelter
9. The Descendants
10. Stake Land
1. World on a Wire: The gleaming surfaces and monotone bureaucrats are a dig at 2001. The eternally recurring reflections are Fassbinder’s own, Dietrich and gay hustlers and rapacious businessmen stalking a virtual Germany warped by funhouse mirrors. Giddy, heartbreaking, endlessly inventive, and (forget the copyright) absolutely of-the-moment.
2. Tree of Life: It’s not the brutal slaps of nature that birthed you, nor the ways of grace so ethereal they threaten to float away to the sky. It was both of them, and everything else. Malick’s illimitable camera summons grand and mysterious creative forges ranging from cosmic fires to a grandfather’s face.
3. Hugo: The first few reels (those gears; those pipes; the city so close you could reach out and feel its pulse) are so marvelously dense and rich they’re practically retraining you to see in a new way. Which I suspect is pretty close to Scorsese’s personal definition of cinema to begin with.
4. A Dangerous Method: In the past (Spider, Crash) Cronenberg has flung sperm at the camera; here he’s captured by the silky gleam of hymenal blood. Which is less feminism than a sign things have forever changed. A chronicle of dangerous plagues coming to ravage the 20th century: as new as Freud’s talking cure, as ancient as anti-Semitism.
5. Certified Copy: I’d always found something monstrous in Kiarostami’s serenity, a hint of disinterest so profound he could find driftwood as fascinating as people. This study of flowing identities, both playful and devastating, corrects my misapprehension; it’s the drift itself that captivates him, and how we’re all dragged along by the surf.
6. Take Shelter: The first great horror film of post-prosperity America, where job insecurity and HMOs and government therapists fuel the nightmare no less than the claps of thunder or the ominous skies. Almost the polar opposite—in style, in effect—from Nichols and Shannon’s previous collaboration; which suggests they’re capable of anything.
7. Mysteries of Lisbon: The best joke of the year is how the final revealed history in Ruiz’s delightful rebuff to stately period dramas bears no relation to the first, but was entirely dependant upon it all the same. One last labyrinth from the master, the paths this time laid out in human lives.
8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Fincher’s breakneck pace has assumed a frictionless confidence that gives you a heady, almost comic charge to see. Which might seem entirely the wrong tone here, but brings a much-needed fleetness to the exposition while making the horrors ever more jarring.
9. Contagion: Its narrative propelled so breathtakingly by the actors plenty and Martinez’s score, Contagion’s emotional heft can be overlooked. But this is a shattering argument for grief as our overwhelming commonality, and a lovely salute to those brave enough to suit up against it when needed.
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: So guarded and chill you barely notice its beating heart. Till it surges, and wrecks nearly everyone forced to live lives so rigorously, ruthlessly compartmentalized.
(as posted on MSN Movies)
2. The Artist
3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
4. A Dangerous Method
5. The Tree of Life
6. Certified Copy
7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
8. The Descendants
10. Meek’s Cutoff
My list submitted to MSN.com on Dec. 9 could just as well have had some of these titles on it. In some cases their omission was chiefly a matter of my not having got round to a second viewing that likely would have put paid to any reservations I harbor. Worthy films all, and enough of them to make the year a better one than it felt like from week to week, month to month. Order here is random:
Melancholia The Tree of Life Le quattro volte Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives A Separation Of Gods and Men Midnight in Paris Carnage Stake Land / Small Town Murder Songs
Midnight in Paris is the only one I hadn’t seen by Dec. 9. Still haven’t seen Poetry, Mysteries of Lisbon, Film Socialisme, The Road to Nowhere….
(as listed at The Herald)
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
2. Certified Copy
4. A Dangerous Mind
5. Meek’s Cutoff
7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives
9. Into Eternity
10. The Descendents / Le Havre
Not necessarily the best movie of 2011, but certainly the one that most memorably captured the pervasive sense that the planet is going to hell, was Jeff Nichols’s hauntingly ambiguous doomsday drama, Take Shelter. Michael Shannon gave another of his Cassandra-like performances as a distraught family man who has apocalyptic visions that may or may not be tied to reality. Duncan Jones’ Source Code used its Groundhog Day plot to imagine another kind of catastrophic future. J.C. Chandor’s brilliantly cast Wall Street tale, Margin Call, fictionalized the Lehmann Brothers disaster into a showdown between casually wicked Jeremy Irons and the only slightly less evil Kevin Spacey. John Sayles went back to the turn of the last century to reveal another form of duplicity in Amigo, his best work in years. Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death transformed the 1937-1938 Nanking massacre into an astonishingly reflective drama. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend used Brief Encounter as the inspiration for an affecting gay love story, while Chris Weitz’s A Better Life lifted the plot for The Bicycle Thief and set it in East Los Angeles. Alexander Payne’s The Descendants deftly transformed its Hawaiian setting into something less than paradise. Among the year’s most provocative documentaries were James Marsh’s Project Nim, about a chimpanzee raised (and sometimes enraged) by humans, and Kenneth Bowser’s carefully researched Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, about the epoch-defining 1960s singer whose ambitious activism was ultimately overwhelmed by his self-destructiveness.
A Second 10: Arthur Christmas, The Artist, Incendies, Moneyball, Hugo, Beginners, Vito, Le Havre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and about two-thirds of The Tree of Life.
Award-winning movies that have yet to be shown in Seattle: The Iron Lady, A Separation, Carnage, Pariah, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Margaret, Coriolanus.
The first three films could swap spots without much anxiety on my part. In the arbitrary, often shifting border between aesthetic principle and personal appreciation, I choose to honor the passing of Raul Ruiz and favor my predilection for labyrinthine storytelling and cinematic weaves of character and narrative across time and space, which Ruiz accomplishes with such grace and beauty I find myself in awe of his art and his insight into human nature and the contradictions that define us.
Three of the films on my list I first saw in 2010, and I construct this list without having seen two films which, by all accounts, are among the year’s best: Margaret, which did not screen in Seattle and which did not play as the film festivals I attended, and A Separation, which screened for critics opposite an end-of-the-year deadline. The rest of the choices and absences are all on me.
1. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
3. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
4. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
5. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
6. The Descendents (Alexander Payne)
7. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
8. Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
9. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
10. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Ten More (in alphabetical order): The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius), A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg), Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn), Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki), Melancholia (Lars von Trier), Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvais), The Princess Of Montpensier (Bertrand Tavernier), Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman), The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
I also very much appreciated a year of smart, well-crafted and clever genre films – Attack the Block (Joe Cornish), Limitless (Neil Burger), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt), Source Code (Duncan Jones), Stake Land (Jim Mickle) – and one marvelous mess of a personal project: Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder).
MSN Movies published its annual Best of the Year poll this week, featuring Top Ten lists from thirteen MSN writers including a trio of Parallax View contributors: Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy and Sean Axmaker. The rest of the line-up isn’t too shabby either: Jim Emerson, Don Kaye, Glenn Kenny, Kim Morgan, Mary Pols, James Rocchi, Glenn Whipp and out editor, Dave McCoy.
It’s the first published Top Ten List from most of us (the individual lists are collected here and here) and deadlines being what they, they were made before at least some of us were able to see some of the most talked about releases set for release before the end of the year (to qualify for the Academy Awards). Given that, it turned out to be such a strong year that there was no shortage of films to vie for spots on the lists.
“This has the big vistas and open spaces of a classic Western, to be sure (it’s even shot in the pre-widescreen Western aspect ratio we know from John Ford films and a thousand other classics), but it also has a rare sense of time as an element of composition: You’re pulled into the rhythm of the trek, slow and steady and terrified.”
“While this film is first and foremost a fairy tale, it is still at heart a quintessential Scorsese story of lonely people and the worlds they make for themselves. Only here the invented worlds, works of imagination, are benign, and actually end up reaching out to the other characters and bringing them together.”
8. “The Artist” (Michel Hazanavicius) by Mary Pols:
“The film is a study of hubris and fear, but mostly, of the easy refuge found in artificiality, the very definition of most contemporary filmmaking. No scene stands out more than a series of takes from George’s silent ‘A German Affair,’ where he dances with Peppy. In one take they flirt, in another they giggle, and finally, as they try to be serious, something real blooms. George, undone, must leave the set….”
7. “A Dangerous Method” (David Cronenberg) by Kat Murphy:
“Do 2011’s end-of-days movies signal some collective anxiety? Electrified by energy and intelligence, David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’ also chronicles end-times, the halcyon era when Freud, Jung, et al., brought the unconscious to light even as the dark seeds of two world wars were germinating. ‘Method’ marks the rise of killer ideas; revolutionary theories skitter like hungry termites behind the film’s perfectly composed interiors and idyllic landscapes. There’s evident strain between civilized surfaces and the dangerous new work of defining madness. For Cronenberg, ideas aren’t dry abstractions; they’re as disturbingly alive, as wildly subversive as those phallic phages in ‘They Came From Within.'”
“You could describe ‘Certified Copy,’ his first production made outside of the borders of Iran, as the cinematic equivalent of a Picasso cubist portrait, presenting multiple experiences along the timeline of a relationship in a single day. The breathtaking tectonic shift is all the more impressive by the subtlety and slyness of the transition, played out in long takes and the easy rhythms of Kiarostami’s heightened naturalism. He has a way of turning the details of his environment into evocative images: The river of sky reflecting across a car windshield illustrates the gulf between Binoche and Shimell, and a parade of hopeful young newlyweds and stooped old married couples continue their life story by proxy.”
“Early in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,’ veteran cold warrior and abruptly retired spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman, magnificent) stares across his sitting room at a painting. The screen is vast, the painting tiny; we can make out only a pattern of frames within frames, one of them as red as a wound. Director Tomas Alfredson ‘s credit appears over the shot, making it seem a mite insistent as an abstraction of impenetrably enigmatic John le Carré world and an assertion of stylistic principle. The movie often has us watching people watching through frames — windows, doorways, ironwork — and being themselves watched; sometimes they furtively cherish the mutual recognition. Yet Alfredson’s signature shot isn’t just a viewing instruction….”
4. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) by Jim Emerson:
“The mythological terrain here is as personal to Apichatpong as ‘Tree of Life”s is to Terrence Malick. You might recognize characters (or names) from his earlier pictures (‘Tropical Malady,’ ‘Syndromes and a Century). And you can read about some of the how the film became (at some stage in its gestation) part of a larger multimedia installation/exhibition called Primitive; or how he envisioned it as a six-reel film shot in six different styles (from Thai horror movie to European art film), but all that is really incidental to the experience you have while watching and interpreting the film yourself. While it unfolds before you, it is, to borrow the title of another Apichatpong movie, blissfully yours.”
3. “The Descendants” (Alexander Payne) by Don Kaye:
“A number of major movies this year were about looking into the past and attempting to find some sort of solace or meaning there, creatively, personally or otherwise. But as Woody Allen revealed in his ‘Midnight in Paris,’ our view of the past is often distorted by our own desires, and things weren’t truly any better then than they are now. That’s why there’s not a whole lot of emotional truth in a simple homage. But there’s a ton of it in ‘The Descendants,’ which is ultimately about taking one’s eyes off the rearview mirror and peering into the future.”
2. “The Tree of Life” (Terrence Malick) by Glenn Whipp:
“There’s beauty, poetry, tyranny, death. There’s the birth of the universe. There are dinosaurs! Why dinosaurs? Short answer: (Again) Why not? Long answer: Perhaps Malick is reminding us that the creatures that once held dominion over the Earth no longer exist. Could the same fate befall their successors? Or maybe that little moment of grace where the big lizard spares its sickly cousin shows a way of avoiding that destiny. Again, it’s all about the questions, and Malick gives you enough to chew on here that you could return repeatedly to ‘Tree’ for years to come, knowing (and savoring) that your experience will be different each time you watch it.”
“Von Trier, a sufferer himself, sincerely understands depression (just as he understood anxiety in ‘Antichrist’), which may be why he maddens many. Weaving himself into his characters, he’s sadistic, masochist, empathetic, self-obsessed, morbid and morbidly funny and then honest and honestly confused. With ‘Melancholia’ he grants depressives a gift….”
Best-of lists are by their nature subjective things, and even more so when it comes to DVD/Blu-ray. What makes a DVD release the “best”? The movie itself? The video and audio quality of the mastering and presentation? The supplements? Rarity of the title? Scope of the collection? Critical acclaim? Cult demand? Some inexplicable balance of some or all of these?
Well, I guess the latter is the closest we’ll come to quantifying the mysterious process, which is why rather than the usual Top Ten list, I’ve broken my picks into categories, so I can celebrate a box set achievement separately from a brilliant home video debut separately from a landmark restoration. Which is not to say this list is not run through with my own subjective judgments, simply that I have found my own way to spread the love around (including naming runners-up as my whims take me). I reviewed most (though not all) of these on various websites (including Parallax View) and have linked to these longer pieces wherever possible. And one last note: The picks are limited to American home video releases, simply because that’s my bailiwick and I haven’t the time or resources to explore the wealth of foreign releases that come out every year.
And for the 2010 release that I love most, allow me to present my…
DVD Release of the Year
Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)
Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”), but step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema.