Thursday, October 20, 2005

Let's Start Picking Some Flicks

Halloween is still eleven days away, but already October has been plenty haunted for my tastes. The personal dramas, ranging from the annoying to the genuinely scary, are too much to get into—most recently, my brother, a former Army lieutenant, received a summons to duty in Iraq by "mistake," though it sure required some frightening phone calls to clear it up. After being repeatedly spooked all month, I'm needing some pleasant and private distraction to get my days off to a calming start. Plus, it wouldn't hurt to reinvigorate this blog and my languishing website a little. Double plus, Nathaniel's recent countdown of the Top 100 Actresses of the '00s was such a kick in the pants—but is now so sadly but sweetly concluded—that I need to fill up the hole it left, and I'm inspired to do something similar.

So, in the wee hours, when work is finally "done" hahahaha and it's already too late to call anyone—or else while I'm waking up, like now—I've drawn up a list of Nick's Picked Flicks, a ranked list of 100 movies, give or take some joint entries, that inspire and energize and delight and provoke me for reasons beyond standard artistic criteria. (Not that anyone knows what those really are.) The idea was actually born as I got ready to do my every-two-years revision to my website's list of the 100 best movies I feel I have seen...which is always a blast to compile and haggle over, and which reliably generates some fascinating e-mail, but which inevitably leaves out movies that I madly love even if they don't quite make the cut as "greats." Setting those 100 aside (though some titles hereby hop from one list to the other), these Picked Flicks are 100 movies that it just makes me feel good to write about, think about, and recommend. They're like my own personal People's Choice Awards, whereas the Top 100 are the National Film Registry, if you dig.

'Course, Nat's kind of scooped me here, too, since he just started a great sidebar feature recommending some favorite classic movies. That fella has really gotta cool it when it comes to beating me to every punch. ;)

If I time things right, I'll finish the backward-unveiling of these 100 just in time for New Year's, when the revised Top 100 will start its own roll-out, all of them with (egads!) actual capsule-length write-ups instead of just titles and grades. I don't expect anything like the outpourings of passion and spirit that Nat's actresses elicited, but I hope people who pass through the site will enjoy getting this weirder and more intimate sense of the movies that make me "tick." So, without further ado, here's #100:

Nothing like The Piano Teacher to get this list off to a savage start, proving that just because I love a movie enough to include it on a list of personal causes célèbres doesn't mean that it's easy to snuggle up to. I am a sucker for razor-sharp formal control, and The Piano Teacher certainly has that, freezing the camera at moments that are just as difficult and unexpected as the furious violence, emotional and otherwise, that often engulfs its three major characters. I always go in for conceptual dramas, and the way Haneke wrests a bold meditation on music and a cultural snapshot of Viennese schizophrenia out of this scalding character study is a subtle and breathtaking achievement. I am a pushover, apparently, for movies about pianos. And, just as obviously, I relish nothing more than watching any world-class actress tearing into a complicated part, and the ferocious precision of what Isabelle Huppert concocts here—vengeful, expert, supercilious, tamped-down, lonely, and volcanically perverse—is something that no other actress in years has equalled. (Most actresses could wrangle with this script for a decade and be too shallow or else too shy to forge the Erika Kohut that Huppert uncovers.)

In combination, these separate marks of the film's distinction yield images and sequences so blunt and shattering in their affective immediacy that the film is that rare thing—literally unforgettable. I do not have the greatest memory in the world, but at the level of individual scenes, The Piano Teacher finds a needle-sharp line right into the mind's cradle. Here is Erika, punishing a promising student with a grotesquely planted ambush of broken glass. Erika, abjecting herself for sexual attention on tile floors, and abandoning herself to ecstatic violence in her own apartment. Erika, her face tight and austere as a hangman's rope, withering in her estimation of her pupils' musical abilities. Erika, ducking into a viewing stall for a quick, hot dosage of the kind of pornographic voyeurism that Haneke himself keeps threatening but miraculously avoids. Penultimately, Erika, literalizing the wounds of her heart in one of the most shocking close-ups I've ever witnessed, capturing Huppert in a look of raw agony that is utterly, irreproducibly her own. And lastly, the music hall, the performance space, the indifferent scene of a death or a near-death, a massive edifice that Haneke has taught us over two hours to read as both an emblem of trained sophistication and an altar to the obscene. The Piano Teacher, so justifiably proud of its performances, is nonetheless bigger than all of them. It is a film of Artaudian cruelty, and a boundary-breaker in the cinema's exploration of its own erotic and artisanal id. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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4 Comments:

Blogger tim r said...

Nick, I think you've just made my winter. Simply cannot wait to read all these. And here's me feeling three steps behind you and Nat as usual, as I've been tinkering around with my own top 100 for weeks...

I'm so with you on films about pianos. Chess too. Something about black/white and special systems of notation. If anyone (Darren Aronofsky?) ever makes a movie about a piano virtuoso who's also a grandmaster, and maybe tries to find musical equivalents for all the openings and endgames, and then goes completely mad and stabs himself with a bishop or something, it'll probably be like my favourite film ever.

4:03 AM, October 21, 2005  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

you are too kind sir. and i am embarrassingly thrilled to watch this countdown develop. Loved the first write up

[whisper] ...and am totally ashamed to say that i gave The Piano Teacher a very low grade upon its release because it. terrified. me. though I did recognize Huppert's powerhouse work with a nomination]

7:10 AM, October 21, 2005  
Blogger damion said...

This is quite an undertaking! I am so excited to follow this list.

10:22 AM, October 21, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

I seem to recall having decided, at the last minute, that I couldn't watch The Piano Teacher with you et al., and staying home to bake a pie instead, only to slit my finger open in what seemed like a perverse displacement of the violence I would have been watching at precisely that moment. I still haven't been able to bring myself to watch it, because I'm too terrified that there might be an uncontrollable amount of identification roiling about in my living room, and I just can't do it, even though I have kind of wanted to.

11:29 PM, October 21, 2005  

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