Sunday, December 13, 2009

Best of the Decade - Albums

Coming up with favorite albums of the decade turned out to be far easier than songs. Choosing between one song and another often seemed arbitrary, but albums aren't as fleeting, and the following all left quite an impression on me. I was going to go with 25, but apparently I can only upload 20 pictures per post, so 20 entries it will be.

Without further ado, my 20 favorite albums of the last te
n years.

20. Saturdays = Youth


19. Santogold

18. Electric Versio
The New Pornographers

17. The Fame Monster
Lady Gaga

16. Ágaetis Byrju
Sigor Rós

15. The Execution of All Things
Rilo Kiley

14. Speakerboxx/The Love Below


13. Let's Get Out of This Country
Camera Obscura

12. Beirut

The Flyi
ng Club Cup

11. Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weeke

10. Home

Dixie Chicks

9. The Reminder

8. Kala


7. Oracular Spectacular

6. Extraordi
nary Machine
Fiona Apple

5. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Neko Case

4. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

The Flaming Lips

3. Challengers
The New Pornographers

2. Funeral

Arcade Fire

1. Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea
PJ Harvey

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Best of the Decade - Songs

Poor planning on my part landed myself right in the middle of a top 100 films project in the midst of any listophiliac's virgin spring - the closing of a decade. That's a once in a blue moon excuse to pound out lists on the best (and the worst, why discriminate?) of everything the last 10 years have served up. So while I'll deliver false promises to you about my diligent work on my Top 100 films, the truth is that I've not been rewatching much of anything lately. Instead, I've been catching up on my cultural blindspots of the aughts (That is what they are, these past 10 years. Or maybe not, but I've gotta stick to something).

And contrary to past history, this blog is about more than just movies. Or at least I founded it on those pretenses. Ostensibly, I listen to a whole lot of music, and television and I are on better terms than we used to be (only on dvd though). Ergo, I have an excuse to post my favorites of the aughts, across all mediums - except books 'cause I read old shit - and you can skim through these boring paragraphs and get right to the rankings, because honestly that's all any of us care about anyway.

Note, however, that only my opinions on movies are infallible. And we'll be starting with music, so feel free to register your disapproval on this one. Positive feedback is acceptable as well, but far more boring to read.

Top 50 Songs of the Decade

50. Island in the Sun - Weezer
49. All The Single Ladies - Beyonce
48. Rockin' the Suburbs - Ben Folds
47. The Fear - Lily Allen
46. Why Do You Let Me Stay Here - She & Him
45. Time to Pretend - MGMT
44. Portions For Foxes - Rilo Kiley
43. Take Me Out - Franz Ferdinand
42. Feel Good Inc. - Gorillaz
41. All For Swingin' You Around - The New Pornographers

40. Through the Wire - Kanye West
39. Strange Overtones - David Byrne & Brian Eno
38. Love Today - Mika
37. Fidelity - Regina Spektor
36. Jesus Etc. - Wilco
35. O Saya - A R Rahman & M.I.A.
34. I Don't Feel Like Dancin' - Scissor Sisters
33. Let's Get Out of This Country - Camera Obscura
32. If the Brakeman Turns My Way - Bright Eyes
31. Good Fortune - PJ Harvey

30. Disturbia - Rihanna
29. Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes
28. Pavlov's Bell - Aimee Mann
27. My Girls - Animal Collective
26. Las De La Intuicion - Shakira
25. Chicago - Sufjan Stevens
24. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) - Arcade Fire
23. Maps - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
22. Dog Days Are Over - Florence and the Machine
21. Lights Out - Santogold

20. Missed the Boat - Modest Mouse
19. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1 - The Flaming Lips
18. Your Cover's Blown - Belle and Sebastien
17. Come into My World - Kylie Minogue
16. A Better Son/Daughter - Rilo Kiley
15. The Bleeding Heart Show - The New Pornographers
14. 1234 - Feist
13. French Navy - Camera Obscura
12. Crazy - Gnarls Barkley
11. Hold On, Hold On - Neko Case

10. Bad Romance - Lady Gaga
Like Gaga herself, a work of abstract art. Baroque, beautiful and utterly infectious.

9. Hounds of Love - The Futureheads
The best cover song of the decade? Not just that, the vocal play going on is nothing short of incredible.

8. Digital Love - Daft Punk
Eerily appropriate for a decade under the influence of digital pursuits.

7. All My Friends - LCD Soundsystem
Somewhere between graduating and growing up in general, this song attained an unexpected level of significance to me.

6. Rebellion (Lies) - Arcade Fire
It's a murky plunge into the band's greatest aural tour-de-force.

5. Travelin' Soldier - Dixie Chicks
Heartfelt, graceful, and absolutely the best American song of the decade. Sorry haters.

4. Electric Feel - MGMT
A sublime and hallucinatory experience. A song fueled by so many drugs that even the most casual listener will be whisked along on the trip.

3. Hey Ya - Outkast
Try as they might, no amount of radio saturation can kill this groove.

2. Myriad Harbor - The New Pornographers
A love letter to New York as great as any of Woody Allen's finest.

1. Paper Planes - M.I.A.
It feels both personal and universal, the beat is damn-near unstoppable, and having so firmly embedded itself into the culture of these last few years, there's no song more deserving of the top honors. I welcome this song anywhere; on an iPod, on the dance floor, or in Slumdog Millionaire. It could hold its own against my favorites from any other decade, so that's a sign that this is the right choice.

I'd have to guess that my choice for #10 will raise the most eyebrows. Anyhow, fire away.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Chaos Reigns in the Fantastic Mr. Fox!

Hello my (theoretical) readers,
I've been away for some weeks, finishing up the dreaded graduate school applications, and so progress on my top 100 and posting all together has come to a screeching halt. But it's over now, and I wasn't being entirely productive, because I still managed to squeeze in a bounty of 2009 releases, the quality of which I will update you

Bright Star
Bright Star is the story of John Keats - before death made him poet extraordinare - and the woman who through no particularly remarkable qualities informs and inspires his work up until death. Tenderly made and carried by two evocative performances by Abby Cornish and Ben Whishaw, Jane Campion's latest has one unfortunate blight upon it, and that would be the bombastic Paul Schneider. Of course, I realize that's just how his character was, but he intrudes upon almost every scene of the film and he's just too insufferable for me to find the slightest pleasure in these (many) moments. He is loud and boorish, and never comes to a satisfying end, and the film is much worse for his presence. But...the film does enough else right for this not to be a total drag. Recommended, but with just the one notable reservation.

The Limits of Control
Jim Jarmusch sends Isaac De Bankole on an assassin's odyssey by way of a series of representatives of an enraged art community. At least that's the idea I got from it all, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself right up to the end - when of all things - I think Jarmusch gives us one line too many towards a possible elucidation. But the whole ordeal is pretty fascinating, and though very little happens in the way of plot, every odd rendezvous was interesting enough on its own terms. If I stop short of loving it, it's because for all the intrigue, I'm not convinced there's a whole lot going on here. Still, there's worse things to be than slight, and if you generally like what Jarmusch serves up, you won't be wasting your time here.

An Education
It's an absolute delight through and through. The story comes out of Britain in the early 1960s and centers on a sharp young girl with her sights set on Oxford. The unforeseen obstacle here becomes the nearly 30 year old man she meets and begins seeing, seducing her with the aristocratic tastes and charms she's always dreamed of. Carey Mulligan is magnetic and sophisticated and lovely without being some model for perfection. I do think when my mind's at last made up that she'll have given my favorite performance of the year. The film wouldn't be the joy that it is without her presence. But everyone else does admirably as well. Alfred Molina, Peter Sarsgaard and Rosamund Pike all deserve loads of credit, but the best supporting performance is easily Olivia Williams as the icy, but well-meaning, school teacher. Seeing this during the final throes of my grad school application process was perfect timing, and the whole film is smart, stylish and kind of invigorating. Among the finest I've seen thus far in 2009.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
And today I got around to my long-anticipated next installment of Wes Anderson's oeuvre. I loved it, not as much as The Royal T's, but loved seems an appropriate word. The voice-work is uniformly excellent with my favorite turns coming from Jason Schwartzman and Michael Gambon. Clooney is great, and not distracting at all, considering you know it's his voice propping up the character. The single best thing the film has going for it though is Anderson's style, which slips right on into the animated world quite effortlessly. From the camera movements to the music, it's the same Wes we know from before, and how great his style looks in stop motion! So The Fantastic Mr. Fox will be the third animated film this year (after Ponyo and Coraline) that I'm rooting for to kick Up's ass in the animated feature category at the Oscars. And unlike the other two, this may actually have a chance at doing just that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lars von Trier & His Fantastic Talking Fox

I could have spent Saturday afternoon shopping in downtown Chicago, or watching the Michigan State game at a local tavern, but no, I decided to stop into The Music Box and witness Charlotte Gainsbourg frolic in the forest with a demonic fox before inflicting graphic genital mutilation on her husband (the ever-so-creepy Willem Dafoe) and herself. So basically, I’m glad I saw Antichrist alone, because I was at least aware of what I was getting myself into.

Lars von Trier seems bound to leave his misanthropic stamp on every genre. Dancer in the Dark is the most harrowing musical you’ll ever see, Boss of it All is his attempt at comedy, and it seems that his next project will see the great Dane take on science fiction. Antichrist, of course, is horror, and in the sorriest decade that genre has ever seen, it’s damn near one of the best. The chilling cinematography leaves no room for sunshine. The muted colors and slow motion shots render us in the perpetual haze that follows unspeakable tragedy – in this case the death of a child – and the handheld camera is perfectly suited to the instability of Gainsbourg’s character. And more on her fierce performance; it’s easily the best to come out of a horror film since Shelly Duvall played a similarly abused woman in The Shining.

Except Gainsbourg is not sympathetic. She’s as crazy as her husband is arrogant, and the mutual destruction that they bring upon each other seems deserved. And that begins to get at why I didn’t quite love the film, even if I greatly appreciated it. The third chapter is titled Despair, a feeling I walked away from Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark feeling in spades (Dogville had it too, but there the despair turned quickly to perverse satisfaction). But though the He and She of Antichrist undeniably feel this weight upon them, the feeling never reached through the screen and seized me. That is because unlike von Trier’s afore mentioned films, there’s no empathy to go around here. Both husband and wife are terrible people, and as I watched them slowly, if brutally, destroy each other, I could only think how right it all seemed. Yet my hatred could have been stronger, it didn’t come close to the contempt I felt for the residents of Dogville, and so somewhere in all this, the film lost a bit of the impact I was expecting it to have. I realize it’s not fair to expect the same emotional punches, only delivered with distinct flair, from every von Trier film, but I can’t help but thinking that much of my reaction here came from the graphic nature of the images. I’ve toyed with comparisons to the Saw films, but it’s impossibly better than those. The direction is impeccable, even if it is second tier von Trier, and the performances he manages to elicit from Gainsbourg and Dafoe are startling. And there’s much more to it than shock and gore, though that’s no doubt what you’ll walk away remembering (that, and the final shot).

But you know, although I liked it well enough, I can’t honestly give it my endorsement. I imagine I’m among the few who wouldn’t fall on one extreme or another in regards to Antichrist. If you already wanted to see it, then you probably should. But if it didn’t look like your cup of tea in the first place, then let me assure you that it definitely is not. Funny enough, what might justify the existence of the entire movie is the dedication tacked on after the last image fades to black. After two of the bleakest hours I’ve had in some time, I needed a good laugh on my way out the door.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tristan's Annual Horror Movie Marathon

Every year when October creeps around my Netflix queue gets set to horror for the month. I got a late start this year on account of my New York trip, but I still covered a respectable amount of ground. Unfortunately, Nightmare on Elm Street never shipped despite hanging at the top of my queue all month, and I may have to resign myself to watching it some time when it's in less demand. But allow me to power through the odd assortment of horror/thriller/and otherwise spooky films I did manage to catch.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992): Coppola pulls off overindulgence better than anyone since Sternberg. Gary Oldman, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes and Tom Waits understand this, and they're wonderful. Winona Ryder and Keanu Reaves don't, and oh my are they terrible.

The Cat O'Ninetails (Dario Argento, 1971): Dario Argento is officially my favorite horror director. He's still getting warmed up here, but the mood he sets is beyond creepy. Ennio Morricone's score sure helps too.

The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984): Little Red Riding Hood battles werewolves and her own burgeoning sexual desires. Count me in.

Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009): Proof that Selick is what made The Nightmare Before Christmas something to marvel at, not Tim Burton (although I guess The Corpse Bride already told us that).

Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992): A fun and freaky bloody mess of a film. The last forty minutes sustains a mind-boggling bloodfest that escalated well beyond the point of insanity.

Don't Torture A Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972): My first Fulci film. Predictable, but another worthy foray into giallo for me.

Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009): It's good to know that Raimi can still pull off his Evil Dead style tricks, but the end didn't quite work for me. Alison Lohman sure is a trooper though.

Hercules in the Haunted World (Mario Bava, 1961): It's visually quite eerie and gorgeous, but I can't get over how terrible the script is. I can deal with the bad dubbing, but the dialogue really lets this one down.

The Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958): Christopher Lee makes a wonderful Drac. Otherwise, it's a just another solid adaptation of the horror classic.

In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1995): John Carpenter has such a great eye for horrifying imagery. There's a bit too much of the "why won't anyone believe what I just saw?" for my liking, but all the Lovecraftian frills more than made up for that.

Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987): One of the best vampire movies I've ever seen. High energy, great performances, and a refreshing take on the genre.

Phenomena (Dario Argento, 1985): The script is fairly bad and Jennifer Connelly isn't a good enough actress to rise above bad material, but damn, Argento can still craft a masterful horror film even with these setbacks. There's some frightening set pieces and a few hilarious ones too (intentionally so). It didn't really kick in until the second half, but I highly enjoyed this by the end.

Ravenous (Antonia Bird, 1999): Cannibalism is creepy enough as it is, but I've always liked it best when served with a Michael Nyman score. The film is frightening, but it wisely keeps a good sense of humor about all the grisly details. Robert Carlyle turns in a wonderfully villainous performance.

Spider (David Cronenberg, 2003): Admirably acted and directed, though considerably less daring than I'd hoped for from Cronenberg. Still, I think I liked it more than his other films this decade.

Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967): Very well written, and certainly unsettling. However, I think in the adaptation from stage to screen, something further could have been done to highlight the horror of living in constant darkness (from being blind). Both Alan Arkin and Audrey Hepburn were quite good.

That makes 15 films, so I think that calls for a mini-awards session. Based on my recent horror film viewing:

Best Male Performance: Robert Carlyle - Ravenous
Best Female Performance: Sarah Patterson - The Company of Wolves
Best Scare: the surprise beheading - Phenomena
Best Scene: The bar fight - Near Dark (RU, the whole bloody party scene - Dead Alive)
Best Screenplay: Ravenous
Best Music: Ennio Morricone - The Cat O'Ninetails
Best Art Direction: Bram Stoker's Dracula
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow - Near Dark (RU, Francis Ford Coppola - Bram Stoker's Dracula)
Best Horror Film: Ravenous (RU, Near Dark)

Top 100 Films 45 -41


Once upon a time Tristan never would have dreamed of sticking a Western among his top 50s favorite films. When I was just starting to consider myself a film snob, I was far too eager to make sweeping generalizations about genres. Westerns got the short end of my cinematic stick. I warmed a bit to the likes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Destry Rides Again and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but it was with Once Upon a Time in the West that I finally made peace with the genre. The title suggests the stuff of legend. To invoke “once upon a time” is a bold statement of the films ambitions. But the concept comes straight from three of the great Italian directors, Sergio Leone himself alongside Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. Centered on the expansion of the railroads, the plot taps into the lifeline of the old West and seems certifiably epic. But that epic feel takes hold in every corner of the picture because Once Upon a Time in the West is a landmark of direction. Leone not only can frame a perfect shot, he can string them together into the perfect scene. Each of the four main characters is treated to an appropriately memorable introduction with the opening sequence featuring Henry Fonda’s ruthless assassin Frank being one for the books. Same goes for high tension confrontation on the train, and the inevitable final standoff. With one unforgettable scene after another, Leone never makes a false step. What he does that rarely comes off successfully in westerns is to make the heroes, the villain, and the girl into equally interesting characters. The proper introductions certainly help, and he couldn’t have cast the parts any better (Charles Bronson has never been this good), and most importantly, there’s an equal sense of importance to each of them. Ennio Morricone even gives each of character their own theme, and they weave together seamlessly into one of his best film scores, which I revisit frequently just to conjure up images of the film.

Pandora’s Box, without the benefit of sound, stands among the most captivating films I have ever seen. This rests firmly on the sensual shoulders of Louise Brooks. Lulu is perhaps the most memorable face of silent cinema (or second to Falconetti, but Brooks is certainly first in my book) and so I don’t find it a stretch to call her performance a medium defining one. Her unabashed sexuality is striking, even today, and placed within the context of when the film was made, it’s remarkable. It’s among the many reasons why the late 20s up until the production code popped up is one of my favorite periods in cinema. As Lulu progresses from ambitious stage performer to utter destitution, we’re fascinated by all this misery of her own making. More compelling still are the men and women she casts her seductive spell upon along the way. We can’t help but see why. Pabst doesn’t need sound to pull this off. Brooks’ face and figure are quite enough.

I had originally stuck Black Narcissus back somewhere in between 70 and 80 on this list, but when I revisited it for the sake of this review, I realized I’d been severely underrating it. My re-viewings have lead to some minor adjustments of the list, but nothing has jumped quite like this. Its upward mobility is indicative of my ever-increasing appreciation for the powerhouse directorial team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I never would have thought it when I first caught Black Narcissus (my first of their films) but I would handily rank them among my five favorite directors, or I guess in this case, six. So this film was my first impression of the dynamic duo of classic cinema, and though I hadn’t been ready to tag it as a masterpiece straight off the bat, my recollection of it lingered thanks to the impact of the performances and the unparalleled power of the imagery.

Where else will you get to witness the slow unraveling of a cloister of nuns high in a Himalayan monastery? There’s something in the air, so they say, and you’ll believe it too. The art direction is the most breathtaking to ever come out of a studio, and the glorious matte paintings that encompass the background mark the monastery of Black Narcissus with a rare beauty that could only be created by an omnipresent hand. Overcome by passions and desires long since repressed, the nuns gradually break from their sanity. At the forefront of their collapse is Sister Ruth and the maddening lust she cultivates for the handsome British overseer, Mr. Dean. Conflicts of soul and body threaten to destroy the sisters and return the monastery once more to a place outside the realm of religious governance. Their undoing is ultimately of their own design, entirely independent of their intrusion in a seemingly mystic land. The failings of the sisters, much like those of the young Hindu prince and the atheist Mr. Dean, come from the most basic human desires, and indeed only seem like failures when viewed through the strict religious codes adhered to by the nuns. A thought provoking, visually resplendent and thoroughly mesmerizing piece of cinema.

42.In the midst of the decade lauded as the pinnacle of American cinema – one where I actually prefer much of the foreign flicks, being the contrarian that I am – I still find it impossible to deny the majesty of Chinatown. It’s both a great film and a great American film (made by a foreigner, no less) and is almost uncontested as the finest revisioning of film noir, a claim I’d hardly argue with. Only a few decades removed from the heyday of noir could you suck all the water – the stormy nights and rain-slicked streets – out of the genre and build as gripping detective story around a devastating drought in the Inland Empire. Jack Nicholson at the top of his game carries on in the tradition of the great screen detectives, a magnet for trouble and troubled women alike. And as far as troubled women go, all the classic femme fatales this side of Gloria Grahame ain’t got nothing on Fay Dunaway. Evelyn Mulwray ranks among the great tragic characters of the screen, her arc ranging from mysterious and alluring to unprecedentedly devastating. And I can hardly carry on about the brilliant casting without a mention of John Huston. The master of noir himself delivers one of the greatest performances by a director ever, in portraying one of the screen’s most loathsome villains. It’s just another nod from Roman Polanski to the glory days of the genre, but the reality it that his creation stands taller than so many of the films it reveres.

41.Adhering to my harshest standards, Greed is the first masterpiece in the hundred plus year history of cinema. Across four harrowing hours - not in the least bit tedious – we follow John McTeague ascent into riches and the ruination it brings upon him and his wife Trina. Erich von Stroheim famously resolved to film on location, most notable amidst the staggering heat of Death Valley. But desperate conditions produce strikingly realized scenes, from the scorching sands of the desert to the harsh mountainside. It’s the original tale of man’s consumption and subsequent unraveling in the face of avarice, pivotal in it’s influence on later classics from The Treasure of Sierra Madre to There Will Be Blood. The trinity of classic characters at the center of the film are as compelling as they are contemptible. McTeague (Gibson Gowland) gradually loses control of his life as his wealth blinds him to everything else. His wife Trina (ZaSu Pitts) is driven into miserly madness and his old partner, Marcus (Jean Hersholt) turns rival as they face off over the fortune. Unforgettable are two scenes deep into the film as greed takes final hold over the characters. Trina, deep in the thralls of insanity, rolls in a bed of gold, cackling like the madwoman she’s become. If that doesn’t get to you, then the legendary climax in the heat of Death Valley surely will. In a punishment fitting of the sinners of Tartarus, McTeague strangles Marcus only to find himself handcuffed to his dead opponent, stranded in the sea of sand. It’s a classic parable that’s been done time and time again ever since 1924, just never done quite so well.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Top 100 Films - 50 to 46

Fellini goes Technicolor, and just because he can, goes completely overboard. I’m sure a lot of credit has to go to Criterion for their resplendent restoration, but the whole film is overrun by eye-poppingly beautiful color. As far as visual feasts-for-the-eyes go, I can’t think of many I’d rather indulge in. Juliet’s wanderings in the spirit world, and its subsequent intrusion into her own, provide ample opportunity for sensational costumes and set pieces. The circus scene, sadly too brief, explodes with life and character. Suzy’s lavish pad mixes shadow and brilliant light giving it a distinctly erotic ambiance. Even Juliet’s real world seems just out of place from the high fashion to the perfectly sculpted trees. But this is a fantasy, one of the best, and everything about the color palate and the set design is just as it should be.

One thing I can’t saw for most films on this list is that I’ve had the pleasure of watching them in the theater. In fact, There Will Be Blood I think is one of only two, and there’s something special about being in on a film’s greatness right from the start. It’s a film of startling ambition, and that’s something we rarely see these days (only a handful this decade are in league with this, and they’re all still to come in my countdown). Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most interesting presences in American cinema these days, has been shooting for the moon his whole career, and so it’s no surprise that he had this in him. The concept speaks to fundamental American values born from greed and religion and it arrived with its theme of blood and oil in the waning years of the Bush administration. The timing was perfect. Of course, so was just about everything else. Like all the most iconic screenplays, this one’s immensely quotable. Johnny Greenwood’s sharp score is perfectly unnerving. Robert Elswit’s cinematography renders every set piece a grand one. And towering in the middle is Daniel Day-Lewis as the deplorable, yet not altogether villainous Daniel Plainview. Every aspect stills seems so fresh, and there’s nothing I can really add to its praise that hasn’t been reiterated time and time again these past two years, but suffice it to say, it’s refreshing to have been a film fanatic at the time this hit theaters.

The world of Brazil isn’t so impossibly different from our own. For a science fiction dystopia there’s not nearly the emphasis on technology you’d expect, nothing much beyond what we’re already capable of (at least in the 80s). But you could be forgiven for not noticing the similarities, because Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece looks nothing like you’ve every seen before. Brazil is a marvel of art direction. It’s no easy task to craft a world that operates on its own brand of logic, but to make such a place seem so cohesive that you never doubt it, well, that’s an accomplishment only equaled by Jacques Tati. Against all odds, Brazil holds together, though it seems that at any moment the walls may come down. Gilliam and company run amok through the dark and unstable buildings, like children acting out a scene in a bedsheet fort of grand design, gleefully ignorant of the impending collapse of their set. That’s why Brazil is at once dangerous and indefatigable, and I can’t think of two better compliments for a film stuck in the middle of the dullest decade cinema has yet to see.

47.Spoilers…Give me Kenji Mizoguchi any day over all the other classic Japanese masters. For proof, look no further than Sansho the Bailiff, although Ugetsu and Life of Oharu are nothing to sneeze at either. But Sansho delivers simultaneously a potent political commentary and a harrowing tale of familial bond, and since neither are typically my cup of sake, it’s speaks volumes that Mizoguchi binds me to the story as intensely as he does. Sansho’s prison-like estate makes for grand set piece, and the haunting cinematography sets the mood for Zushio as he chases his ghosts. The two lingering moments that I’ll never shake from my head come at the middle and end of the film respectively. Anju’s descent into the lake is bone-chilling, perhaps the most powerful depiction of family sacrifice in all of cinema, and it’s her absence that keeps the reunion at the end of the film from carrying the satisfaction you’d expect. That doesn’t diminish the effect of this final scene. Zushio and his mother are together once more, but the years have taken a terrible toll on her, and Anju’s absence weighs heavily on both of them. They’re together at last, but at great cost. It takes every ounce of self-control to hold back tears by this point - the moment is just that bittersweet. Kudos to Mizoguchi for proving I’m not heartless after all.

46.The opening scene of Sam Fuller’s uncompromising Naked Kiss lets you know exactly what’s in store for you in the next hour and a half. There’s a hooker pummeling some no-doubt deserving bastard with her purse. And suddenly after he yanks on her hair, her wig comes right off. She’s bald. This only makes matters worse, and she continues to beat his drunken ass to the floor. She seizes his wallet, takes exactly the money he owes her, and stuffs the remaining wad of cash in his mouth. Rarely has a movie so gleefully launched us into the fray. From there we jump to two years later, and our familiar whore, Kelly, now has a full head of hair and new prospects on the horizon. But as she strikes up a new life, leaving her former profession behind, she can’t help getting caught up in the dark underside of the town she now calls home. Had the opening scene not prepared us for virtually anything, the astonishing twist in the plot may have felt too shocking. Fuller never hides the dark edges of his films, but he shows a commendable amount of restraint just where he needs to here. The payoff is one of the great commentaries on small town America, and it feels very much like a precursor to Twin Peaks noir angle. And amid the 60s arthouse boom and infatuation with epics, Naked Kiss seems the most distinctly American film of the decade. Sheer greatness all around.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New York Film Festival Wrap Up

I've been back in Michigan a few days now, and I think it's high time for an update on my New York trip. In my time in the city, I logged a lot of hours at the New York Film Festival, none of them disappointing ones. I caught four films, which considering everything else I managed to do, is quite respectable. I should probably jump into this chronologically, yet I've got some bragging to do, so I think I'll jump around as it pleases me. Great films attract great talent, and I did see a handful of notable directors, at least ones notable to an arthouse whore like myself. But closing night (Sunday) was the showing of Pedro Almodovar's latest, Broken Embraces, and with the film came not only Pedro, but his favorite muse, (sometimes my favorite too) Penelope Cruz. It's difficult to put her elegance to words. She's lovely, and her arrival with Almodovar was one of several moments over the weekend that had me 100 percent certain that I don't want to be living anywhere but New York.

But the film! Broken Embraces. My perspective on Almodovar's canon comes from having seen all his biggest hits (specifically, Women on the Verge..., All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education and Volver) and nothing more, mostly for availability. Needless to say, those five set a pretty high bar, so my expectations for this were nigh unreachable. For my unfairness, however, I was punished by not being disappointed so much as taken by surprise. I'd never imagined that the film would be funny, much less as hilarious as this often was. A surprise, an a pleasant one, but it did leave the mystery of it all hurting a bit. That ended up being my only complaint. The intrigue that drives the story on doesn't set itself up quick enough, only to resolve itself too soon. The film jumps back and forth in chronology frequently, and it's in the editing of these otherwise fine scenes that something goes awry. Beyond that, the film doesn't falter. Much as I'd love to single Penelope out, the entire ensemble does a wonderful job, but she does look the best of the bunch. And not just because she's gorgeous: her costumes are marvelous. Between this and Brothers Bloom, I don't know which I'd rather see get in for best costume design at the Oscars (and neither will).

Now allow me to jump around in time Broken Embraces style. We cut to Wednesday night. Tristan has arrived in New York mere hours ago, and currently wanders the streets aimlessly, suitcase still in tow. Come 8:30, I jut on over to Lincoln Center, knowing I'll be able to catch a certain film at the festival while I wait for my friend to get out of class. I knew I'd be catching Jacques Rivette's new film, Around a Small Mountain, but I didn't realize until then how fitting it seemed to be. Not to spoil things to come on my top 100 list, but Rivette's become quite a favorite of mine in the past year and given how extraordinarily difficult it is to find his films, the opportunity to see one in the theater on my first night in New York was too great to pass up. The film was quite good, and shockingly for Rivette, under ninety minutes. Funny enough, that may have been what kept me from thinking it on the level with his best work. Few directors work as well with so much time given, and the story of a struggling circus he presents goes by too quickly. Still, it was worthwhile, and a joy to see on the big screen.

Time jump again! Only because I'm building slowly up to my favorite film of the bunch. It's Saturday at noon. I met up with Sanny and Dr.Ciski, two of the other posters over at Culturish for a screening of Bong Joon-ho's film, Mother. Like his previous film, The Host, it's a terrific mingling of genres that seamlessly moves from laugh-out-loud hilarious to levels of intensity that'll make your blood run cold. Bookended by two surreal dancing sequences (I was reminded of Beau Travail, but I doubt he had that in mind) the rest of the film moves at a much faster pace. The story centers on a young man, a literal village idiot type, and his ever present mother. It seems typical enough at first, but once a murder investigation enters the picture, oh the places this goes! Kim Hye-ja's portrayal of the mother ranks among the finest turns of the year, but the whole thing is just spectacular. I can't recommend it highly enough, and hopefully it'll see some sort of limited release around the States. South Korea wisely selected it as its contender for Best Foreign Film, and I'd love to see it make the lineup, if only for the attention it will bring it.

And now we cut back to Thursday, when after an anxious wait in the rush tickets line, I at last got my ticket to see Michael Haneke's Palm d'Or winning The White Ribbon. I was so grateful to get in that I didn't even complain when I saw my seat, first row, one seat from the end. This had one advantage and advantage only: Haneke himself stood five feet in front of me as he introduced the film. He cut a respectable figure, and dressed in all black, precisely as I imagined he would. He also refused to give us the satisfaction of an explanation of his motives, and I'm assuming he elaborated a bit in his Q & A session, but one of the many great things about the film were the potential discussions that could crop up around interpretation. The only thing I knew going in was that this small German village in the early 20th century becomes a symptom for the impending Great War. The best elements of all Haneke films are here in spades. Performances are stellar across the board and the direction itself is easily the best I've seen all year. And unlike many of his films: both Funny Games, Benny's Video and even Caché, this doesn't seem designed to provoke the audience (a trait which I don't personally mind) and as such I can see this becoming his most mainstream effort, despite even the 2 and a half hour run time. Of course, there's still moments of sadistic violence, more even than in most of his films, but there's also a surprising amount of humor and even a touch of romance. Thanks to that, and he strikes a perfect tonal balance I feel, the violence wrought upon the town doesn't bear down on the film like in many of his previous works. Behind everything though, despite the best efforts of the townsfolk to ignore it, the violence seethes, and the impending conflict of war is brilliantly set up. The film is gorgeous and I'll file it right behind Caché as my favorite from Haneke.

Ah, there, all set! I can get back to that top 100 project, I suppose.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Manhattan Project

Tomorrow I journey through the fires of hell itself (that would be a flight from Detroit straight to Newark) and emerge from there in the city that gave me Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Gossip Girl. It'll be my first trip to New York, so like my arrival in San Francisco last spring, I'll celebrate by dragging my luggage around for a few hours getting my bearings and finding the place I'm staying at (while I wait for my gracious host to get out of class). I'm expecting to be overwhelmed right from the get-go, except wait, I'm flying into Jersey, so no. But I'm sure it won't take long for me to entirely lose myself in the city. Providing for that, I've made few firm plans. The possibilities seem limitless, but here's a few things I'm sure to look into.

1. Visit NYU. That's my excuse for going in the first place, so I'm certainly making time for this. I'll be scouting out my number one choice for grad school, which I'm looking forward to almost as much as the East Village itself.

2. The New York Film Festival. This I'm already overwhelmed by. I initially hoped to just grab tickets for Broken Embraces and The White Ribbon, Pedro Almodovar and Michael Haneke's new films respectively, but the lineup for these final few days of the festival is fairly exceptional. I've already got my ticket for Bong Joon-Ho's Mother, and it's going to be hard to pass up the chance to see films by Jacques Rivette (Around a Small Mountain) and Claire Denis (White Material) on the big screen. Even Catherine Breillat's new film, Bluebeard, has got my attention, though after seeing Fat Girl this spring, she's still stuck on my timeout bench for a while. With all the fancy art-housing that I'm bound to take part in, you can bet I'll have something to report here early next week. And for the first time, I won't have to wait around for these to never actually open in Michigan. Hooray for being ahead of the curve!

3. Broadway. How can't I at least try to see something while I'm around? And I've narrowed it down to two, Next to Normal or God of Carnage. Probably Thursday night, because that looks all clear for now. I'm strongly leaning toward God of Carnage on account of the cast. Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden - I'm there. Well, not yet, but with any luck, then absolutely.

4. Museums. MOMA, maybe the Natural History Museum. Or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We'll see. I've really fallen in love with art museums lately so I'll be doing at least one of them.

But I'm resisting planning as much of this as I can. I'd really rather just immerse myself in the city. That way I can be free to do some shopping, restaurant and bar sampling, and celebrity stalking. And then I'll file a full report right back here. It'll at least be more culturally relevant than this lame declaration of my agenda.

Cheers! Be back next week!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Top 100 Films - 55 to 51

55.Luis Bunuel’s career as a director, taken in all its surrealist glory, is in a way a microcosm of the history of cinema, because up until his final film in the late 70s, he was following right along with it, all the way from Un Chien Andalou back in the silent era. And somehow while remaining true to the instability of his cinema, he stills progressed through stage upon stage of development as a filmmaker before truly coming into his own, as world cinema was, during the 1960s. The trick he at last perfected was to sustain his surrealist fantasies through a feature film, and the marvel of it is that he pulls this off without straying from his typically simple and inventive, if rarely logical, premises. The gimmick holding up The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie sees a group of outdated aristocrats have their attempts to sit down to dinner continually thwarted. Amusing though it may sound, it’s the kind of concept that may seem more at home on a sketch comedy show. But of course, it works. In fact, it works so well that at times you forget there is a gimmick to it all because it’s so damn funny.

The film’s nature calls for an episodic format, but you could never get away with calling it disjointed. One scene seems to beget the next, and like our intrepid elites, we never grow discouraged at the relative lack of progress. We collect each incident in the film (I’d put no stock in any isolated analysis here) and cobble them together in the portrait of the upper class, aptly singled out in the title for their charm. Bunuel was the great class satirist of cinema and he hits his mark here with a subtle ferocity. He’s slandered the poor bourgeoisie in the worst possible way: they’re no scourge upon society, they’re merely frivolous.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a delirious little fairytale that would feel seriously morbid were it not for the feeling that you could snap back into consciousness at any time. It’s like a Czech Alice in Wonderland, but with vampires and evil priests, and also a man who turns into a bird. Filter that through a surrealist spyglass and set it in a gothic fantasy land and the scene has been set. Our heroine, Valerie as the title would indicate, embarks on a fantastic journey of sexual discovery as the hands of the monsters and madmen, and here’s where it ought to get morbid, except that the whole thing’s so impossibly beautiful that you can barely muster a cringe. It’s a wonderful hidden gem of a film, maybe not the best way to break into Czech cinema, but one whose macabre sense of whimsy is hard to shake.


Ask me my favorite actress and I won’t hesitate to bring up Juliette Binoche. Actor is bound to make me think a bit more, but if I narrow the list down to those still drawing breath, the easy choice is Daniel Day-Lewis. And what do you know, Phillip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being brings my two favorite living actors together, in one of the most sensual romantic epics ever made. But who emerges as the real star of the show here, (no, not Lena Olin, though she is wonderful, and even more wonderful to look at) none other than Sven-fucking-Nykvist, who incidentally can fight Sacha Vierny for the title of my favorite dead cinematographer. Nykvist’s camera captures each scene with elegant eroticism. It’s an unbridled approach to love that we don’t get much of in American cinema, and I’m assuming that’s the general aura of Milan Kundera’s novel as well, though I’ve not read it. Binoche’s performance taps the most interesting angle of this romance, as she exudes both a childlike innocence and the spirit of sexual adventure. Whereas Olin’s sexuality burrows into our minds from the start (times two! that mirror!), Binoche’s allure simmers at first only to explode upon her arrival in Prague. But it’s at the photo shoot that marks the midpoint of the film where she comes into full bloom, guided by Olin’s steady hand and Nykvist’s penetrating gaze.

As with just about every epic romance, this is set against one of those times that try humanity, here the USSR’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. It’s a conflict that defines the lives of the three principle characters as much as their relationships do, and like Day-Lewis’s Tomas, our initial apathetic outlook toward it becomes a matter of deep conviction. Not surprisingly, Tom Stoppard took at lot of inspiration from here (well, the novel at least), for his recent Rock ‘n’ Roll. But the politics are expertly balanced with the erotic, often with one nudging the other along. The three hours don’t go by quickly, not that you’d want them to. It’s the kind of beautiful dreamscape that, despite the ups and downs, you wish could stretch on forever. Alas, it appropriately comes to a very dreamlike ending that offers a sort of melancholy satisfaction.

The devastation wrought by In a Lonely Place has no equivalent among classic Hollywood fare. It’s filed under noir, a label I certainly wouldn’t deny it, but in fact it’s one of the most intense character studies ever put to film. It’s not really about murder, though that’s the act that sets the whole of it in motion, it’s about two people’s gradual destruction at each other’s hands. Headlining the cast is the icon of noir himself, Humphrey Bogart, a man whose presence is enough to carry just about any movie. But the real treat of it all is that he has honestly never delivered a performance of this caliber anywhere else (even The Treasure of Sierra Madre). Bogart reaches below his unshakably confident exterior and creates a character with secrets, fears and passions. It’s one of the great turns of all time, not merely his career. And it helps that working with him (and against him) is noir’s great distressed damsel, Gloria Grahame. Her performance is every bit as involved as Bogie’s, colored equally by shades of suspicion and devotion. They’re working off a knockout of a script, and Nicholas Ray’s intimate direction keeps the momentum building right up to the final gut-wrenching scene, but I can’t stress enough that with any two other actors, this film would not be the masterpiece that it is. Bogart gets a lot of credit, but rarely for his acting chops, and Grahame just doesn’t get much credit at all, but these are two of old school Hollywood’s finest, and to see them battling fears and passions like this is really a thing of wonder.

51.Werner Herzog’s notion that great documentary is rooted in fiction doesn’t gain much traction in the field where the pursuit of truth seems to be the ultimate end. Yet I put it to you that the greatest documentary ever made is one built around this examination of fact vs. fiction. I’m speaking of Orson Welles F For Fake, masquerading at first as an examination of the world of art forgers, but just as much an exposition of Welles’ own career as a “magician” and “charlatan.” The presence of the legendary director himself is holds limitless fascination. Of course we know he’s a gifted storyteller, and the tale he lays out of notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and Howard Hugh’s faux-biographer Cliff Irving comes off sounding even more impressive, if that’s even possible. Throughout the film we’re tantalized by minor yarns from Welles own life, and being the master magician he is, he eventually succeeds in catching us off guard. But documentary or not, it’s still a movie, and what fun it is to be tricked like this! If only more documentaries dared to walk the murky line between fact and fiction that F For Fake does. Maybe that’s against the spirit of the genre, but considering how subjective the truth always is, it might paint a more complete picture. Certainly a more interesting one.

Continue to 50 to 46

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Top 100 Films 65-56

65.I’ve been agonizing over this one for a while, first because it’s been some time since I’ve seen it so the exact progression of events is a bit muddled in my head, second because even if they weren’t, I’m not sure I could put to words the allure that this considerably underrated Ingmar Bergman film has for me. Like much of Bergman’s cannon, the atmosphere of The Silence defines the film more than its events do (and wouldn’t you know, it’s a very solitary atmosphere). In fact, the whole film seems to run on a throbbing disconnect between family, between culture, and between this life and the next. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot here that just doesn’t make one lick of sense. Why the singular tank in the streets? What’s up with the dwarfs? But like Last Year at Marienbad, (comparisons between the two are apt) it’s best not to demand answers from this one. Bergman himself was more interested in questions anyway, especially at this stage in his career. From that lengthy period when he grappled with the existence of God, The Silence is surely his most compelling work.

Would you rather have fish or meat for dinner?

What would you have preferred if you were having meat?
I dunno, veal.

If you were to have beef rather than veal, would you prefer a steak or a roast?
A steak.

Had you answered roast, would you have preferred it rare or well-done?

Well, honey, you’re out of luck. My roast beef’s a bit overdone.

Jean-Luc Godard always has so much to say in his films that often he forgets (or actively avoids) how to loosen up and have fun. Not so in A Woman is a Woman, which is joyfully packed with playful exchanges like the one above. Plus it’s a musical, or at least, it’s sort of a musical, and this insistence on wading halfway into a genre without ever committing to a full plunge must make this one of the most self-conscious movies ever made. The whole thing’s a blast though. The minor touches that Godard slips in don’t go unnoticed; like the casual references to his earlier films as well as Truffaut’s, or seeing them haul the floor lamp around the apartment at night, which gets me every time. Anna Karina rocks the color rock like it’s never been worn before and she brightens up every frame of the classic, yet dreary Parisian streets. Her presence is irresistible, and the giddy, just-awakened love we have for her is no surprise since we’re seeing her as Godard did early on in his attraction to her. And though it’s Karina’s movie through and through, it’s nice having Jean-Paul Belmondo (I especially enjoy his simple conman schemes) and Jean-Claude Briarly along for the ride. The interactions between all three amount to comic perfection. There’s really never a dull moment, mainly because jump cuts conveniently sidestep anything boring, but Godard and Karina bring so much energy to this mix that it’s a joy the whole way through.

I’m always surprised not to see Stroszek ranked among Werner Herzog’s greatest films. Sure it doesn’t boast an insane performance from Klaus Kinski, but instead we get the most endearing idiot to ever find himself on screen, Bruno S., the very definition of an amateur actor. Bruno, along with his girlfriend and elderly neighbor, leaves Germany behind and heads for the promised land of Wisconsin seeking a new and better life. But the life of an immigrant is rarely a glamorous one, and Bruno and company find a strain not just on their finances, but on their own little oddball family. It sounds like the story of just about every immigrant to the good ol’ US of A, and I’d have never taken interest in the first place had Herzog not been at the helm. That’s exactly what this classic tale of chasing the American dream needed though, the gaze of a foreigner whose dreams were always far grander than any newcomer here could every imagine. How familiar Herzog was at the time with America I can’t be certain, but two things I do know are thus: first, that he ended up making Stroszek after getting sidetracked from his quest to dig up Ed Gein’s mother’s grave; and second, that he approaches every minor utter obscurity in the heartland with the utter fascination that only a foreigner could. The America we see in Stroszek has no streets paved with gold, but it hardly takes place in an immigrant ghetto either. The country instead is characterized by its people, auctioneers, mechanics, even an animal magnetism expert; and unforgettably by its roadside attractions. Herzog and Bruno have to come all the way to Middle America to marvel at an animal sideshow event, complete with a chicken that just won’t stop dancing. It may be the strangest depiction of our country displayed on film, but more than a few notes of it ring true. In exploring the place on his own terms, Herzog finds the bits that set us apart from the rest of the world, though not necessarily for better or for worse.

One of the only films that I’d seen for the first time in 2009 to make the list (I believe 3 others did as well) I’d prefer to have another viewing before deciding how to explain it’s brilliance, but since it’s a little hard to come by a copy, I’ll do my best without. Nicholas Roeg, co-director and cinematographer, rarely gets the credit he deserves, and he’s surely shot films more beautiful than Performance, but maybe never one so effective (even there I’m stretching, The Masque of the Red Death nails the mood of Poe’s story with haunting precision). The point stands though that it takes an act of inspired genius to craft a tale of identity and (as the title would suggest) performance that so in your face as this; stuffed with violence and hypersexuality and filmed like a frenzied plunge into a rockstar’s life behind the scenes. Mick Jagger brings his larger than life persona to the film, and James Fox pulls out the performance of his career to go head to head with him. The resulting experience is a delirious pitfall with a real head-scratcher left at the bottom for us to mull over. But these bits of confusion don’t hurt, they add to feeling that this may all have sprung from an extended hallucination from too many wild nights stacked on end.

Ack! I just realized that I totally shorted Donald Cammell on co-director credit in the graphic. How insensitive of me. Well, credit where credit is due. He's responsible for the script, so that makes the wonders of this as much his doing as Roeg's.

61. For a cinematic mindfuck of the first order, I actually walk away from Being John Malkovich with relatively few questions, (save for ‘why doesn’t John Cusack chose scripts this good more often?’) but that’s ‘cause in spite one insane convolution on top of another, the film does a remarkable job of explaining, and subsequently holding to, its own logic. The plot hurdles from just-plain-weird to batshit-crazy as we move from the story of a creepy puppet guy who works in an office built for dwarfs to a hysterical scheme for exploiting the portal to another man’s body (that would be Mr. Malkovich) to a nefarious quest for eternal life. And yet each time Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze up the ante, we can only laugh; shocked that it just dared to go where no film had gone before.

Maybe that’s not quite true, but then again, it’s one of the only films I know that refuses to settle down. To call it escalation doesn’t even begin to do the screenplay justice. The film refuses to settle down and thus there’s no window for minds to wander out of. The film demands our fullest attention (just try bringing someone up to speed on this one, impossible) but what more can you ask for in a movie? At turns it’s hilarious, unsettling, sensual, powerful and introspective. It defies genre. And of course there’s a handful of memorable offbeat performances at the center of it all, including the all but unrecognizable Cameron Diaz. Her baffling love triangle, sort of quadrilateral, with John Cusack and Catherine Keener drives much of the film along and brings out career best performances from all involved. But had the lot of them not been so damn good, this would be remembered as Malkovich’s show. He brilliantly pulls of an intentionally self-aware performance that goes well beyond any part an actor ever imagine playing. Much as the film boggles my mind, I can’t imagine his reaction upon first seeing the script. Only from the warped brain of Charlie Kaufman could all this have sprung.

For an avant-garde filmmaker, Kenneth Anger’s output is surprisingly all quite uniformly good; that is to say, his experiments largely pay off. But within his fascinating body of work, The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome stands out as his masterpiece. He transports us to the very visual realm of Xanadu, not perhaps what you’d picture from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, yet steeped in mythic lore just the same. The film runs a mere 45 minutes, but you’d never really know. Time has no bearing on this hypnotic barrage of images. It’s the kind of film that can only adequately be experienced, not described. It initiates a kind of trance, provided you’re willing to get over how damn odd the whole thing is and surrender yourself to the visuals. My recommendation would be to turn off the lights and eliminate all possible distractions before getting started. Considering how short it actually is, there’s no sense in interrupting the otherworldly sensation this conjures up.

The times they are a changing in Sicily during the course of the Risorgimento, and The Leopard captures the moment through an intimate portrait of a member of the country’s dying nobility. Luchino Visconti’s exquisite masterpiece sets a high bar for epic filmmaking. Breathtaking visuals, a sublime score by Nino Rota, and a collection of the finest costumes ever designed for film add weight to unflagging grandeur of the whole affair. Visconti paints a world so beautiful that we never doubt how resolutely the old guard would hang on to it while the younger generations fight equally for its betterment. The performances are towering. Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, among the best European actors of their day, give a face to the country’s youth. Burt Lancaster is astonishing as the Prince, understanding of the changing world around him, but emotionally worn down by it as well. His character is a great man, yet a fragile one. So rarely do we see the most distinguished and imposing of figures reveal their vulnerabilities as he does, however selectively. It may just be the best performance of the 1960s. Overall, a film of soaring ambition that never misses its mark, but hits its most magnificent stride in the final hour with an extended celebration sure to win back the attention of less patient audience members. It’s an astonishing accomplishment for both Vicsconti and Lancaster.

I would struggle to compare Withnail & I to any other comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s more British than Beef Wellington, yet doesn’t fall into the company of the Pythons, Ealing studios, nor the more contemporary comedy of Simon Pegg or Ricky Gervais. It also succeeds in simultaneously hitting both the high and low brow, a satire on social rank that finds a great many laughs from drugs, homosexuality and drunken antics. Bruce Robinson’s screenplay is sharp and built around three characters whose typically extreme interactions (extreme, because excess of drink begets such behavior) keep things hilarious from start to finish. Paul McGann plays I, the more timid of the titular characters, whose inability to control the downward spiral of their country weekend seems to be the principle conflict of the film. Richard Griffiths is Withnail’s well-to-do uncle Monty who happily puts his nephew and friend up for the weekend in his country cottage under the illusion that I may have eyes for him. They’re both marvelous, but it’s Richard E. Grant as Withnail who (drunkenly) drives the film to such great heights.

Withnail may either be the worst person in the world, or the best. That would depend on whether you’re his roommate, or just a casual acquaintance, and it would certainly depend on whether you’re stone sober or soused out of your head as he is for most of the movie. He’s a coward who attracts the most exciting of situations. He’s a gifted performer forced to use his acting talents to secure a few drinks thanks to his perpetual unemployment. Most remarkably, he’s a fallen bourgeoisie, possessing all manner of an aristocrat from speech to attire, and disdain for the only food and drink he can afford because it doesn’t sooth his highly evolved palate. Withnail is a character built larger than life, and as wretched as he treats his constant companion I, his presence feels like an honor. Withnail can out-drink us, out-talk us, and out-class us, and he may in every way be too good for us, but we get to have him nonetheless. I’ll raise my glass to Withnail, and he’ll raise his bottle right back at me.

I’m the odd one that prefers the pseudo-sequel to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to the original tearjerker musical. It all stems from the conditions I watched it under. I usually can count on a musical to lift my spirits when I need it most-there’s no more perfect form of cinematic escape-but if my love for Jacques Demy’s perceived masterpiece is flagging (and it ain’t much, it would easily make an alternate top 100), it’s because I went in expecting a very different film then I ended up getting. Imagine my elation though when I discovered The Young Girls of Rochefort, every bit as gorgeous as Umbrellas, yet without the teary melodrama. Instead, it’s a celebration of musicals, one that’s impossible to overlook if you’re in love with the genre. Demy brings in Gene Kelly for chrissakes, and the aging dance master is in a fine a form as ever. At the center of it all, Catherine Deneuve and her real life sister Françoise Dorléac are positively radiant; glamorous young girls hopelessly in love and living in the most colorful seaside town ever dreamed of. I’ve heard catchier songs in musicals before, but here the combination of sound, color and oft-grand staging make my weepy heart race in anticipation of a happy ending. And if I’ve not spoiled it already, that’s exactly what I get.

I want to be a Tenenbaum. I’ve always wanted to, since long before the movie was even made. It might be that I’d like to picture myself living in style in one of New York’s most colorful apartments. Or perhaps I crave the talents, for writing, business, tennis or otherwise, that come so naturally to the gifted Tenenbaum offspring. Or maybe it’s the desire to dive into the world of indie quirk without all the saccharine cutesiness that’s now a staple of it. One way or another, Wes Anderson’s storybook tale of family dysfunction introduces a world that’s got plenty of class, wry humor and appeal, and dammit, I want to be part of it.

But why? The characters are hardly people you’d consider lucky to have as friends. Royal’s a grade-A fraud, Margot’s stoicism is a constant frustration, and Chas’s overbearing parent act is no less irritating. It’s also no small matter to ask the audience to accept, much less cheer for, a brother/sister romance, even if they’re only stepsiblings. Of course all these characters endear themselves to us, because although they’re types are exaggerated to extremes, they’re interactions and epiphanies all feel distinctly human. And we do cheer for Margot and Richie to find happiness, though if we’ve gotten to that point, we’ve already come to terms with the awkward situations the film relishes as the foundation of its humor. There’s no place the film won’t go for the sake of a dry chuckle; dog fighting, mental illness and a mortal wound or two, but with the amount of detail that Anderson manages to slip between the frames, it’s bound to take a few viewings to catch everything. Of course, I can think of few films that I’d more eagerly revisit. It’s a strange world these Tenenbaums live in, mostly by their own fault, but that’s what really makes it so inviting.

Continue to 55 - 51