Monday, December 22, 2008

Behind Every Door, Another B+

As you'll have noticed, if you keep track of the sidebar, I've been racing to catch up with 2008 releases that I missed in theaters but are now available on DVD, and just like every year, they reinforce what a falsehood it is that the fall is the best season for seeing movies. The best season for Oscarbait, maybe. And sure, there is fabulous stuff knocking around the multiplexes and the arthouses these days: The Wrestler, Milk, The Class, A Christmas Tale, Rachel Getting Married...

Still, in the last week or two, and adding to the early '08 marvels that I already absorbed in the theaters, I've seen a rash of really great springtime releases: the exciting and partially animated documentary Chicago 10, the plush and perverse costumer The Duchess of Langeais, the vividly filmed and acted criss-crossy drama The Edge of Heaven, and the serenely observant and occasionally cheeky Still Life. (Boy has the Venice Film Festival been on a terrific run these last few years!) Assuming that my six A-range movies from the year are all safe for my Top Ten List (and I'm basically only awaiting In Bruges and Benjamin Button before I sally forth with that thing...), this means that the competition in my mind for those last four slots is suddenly quite tight among the seventeen movies I've tagged with a B+ in the last year of commercial releases.

So, while I'm only fitfully on the web for the next few week, and while I'm cogitating about my list and second-guessing my allegiances, can you do me a favor? Make a short, punchy FYC statement about why any one of these movies does or doesn't deserve to qualify for the Top Ten ahead of one or more of the others. Does A Christmas Tale or Rachel Getting Married do better by its lively family dysfunction? Does Milk or The Class strike a more interesting balance between its documentary and imaginative impulses? Has Yella's elliptical sense of dread lingered better in your mind than WALL•E's measured sense of wonder? How about the afterlife of Burn After Reading's acrid comedy, or the muted, observational styles of Ballast and Flight of the Red Balloon? The dusty dreamworld of Alexandra, the nightmare chamber of Taxi to the Dark Side, the florid pop-up book of The Fall, or the rambunctious historical embellishments of Man on Wire or Chicago 10?

If you haven't seen one of these titles, rent it or buy a ticket, and file your impressions. I'm all ears, and nothing is a sure thing! I thought The Dark Knight was, but a second viewing bumped it down a notch. Alternatively, I've been known to decide that a "B" movie from earlier in the year has made a more potent impression on me than a whole flock of "B+"s, which is how Iraq in Fragments leapfrogged its way up at the last minute in 2006. So—sway me!


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Visions of Masterworks Dancing in My Head

It's the weekend before Christmas, and I'm packing suitcases and second-guessing gift purchases and feeling as bad as you are about all the phone calls and e-mails I still have to return. I'm also not positive that I'll be able to post any more of the Favorites until after my holiday trip, but to compensate, here's a sneak peak of the new year I've got planned for Nick's Flick Picks. Remember that the Favorites are meant to add personality and caprice to my adjacent Top 100 Films list, which is much more conservatively defined as yet another list of the "best" movies you absolutely have to see. I revised them both at the same time in the autumn, but I haven't decided yet what to do with the Top 100 in terms of writing. I'm having so much fun with the Favorites that I want to do something, but I'm still considering the possibilities. While I figure it out—and since Salome lived for nothing if not to teach me to unveil in stages—here is a preview of half of the revised Top 100. Five movies from each bracket of ten. Don't expect all the links to work: this is a rough draft of a work in progress, etc. But it's something fun to put in your stocking, as a loyal reader of this blog (THANK YOU!!) and in anticipation of many happy discussions in the new year.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Gran Torino: The Seven-Word Review™

Again, this idea belongs to Nathaniel, but Clint Eastwood is nothing if not famously efficient, right? I can hardly avoid this format. So, here goes:

The nightmare child of Kolya and Crash.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm Buying What Merchant's Selling

Wow, no love for Solaris, huh? Awful quiet around that entry. Maybe this one'll fare better.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Loss in Space

Even if the characters in the two film versions of Solaris were good at making choices or at telling things apart, I wouldn't be, and I certainly wouldn't be able to opt for Tarkovsky's philosophical epic or Soderbergh's shimmering headspace romance. Or, for that matter, Stanislaw Lem's bizarre and beautiful novel. I want all three. But if it's any consolation to all of you who have had trouble putting up with my Libra indecisiveness thus far in the countdown, this is the last joint entry. Stay tuned next time for some adventures in real estate, metaphor, and moral relativism.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

No Longer in My Thirties...

...but only insofar as Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai was my last entry in this bracket before we move up to the 20s. The oxygen is getting thinner—and not just because we're climbing higher. We're actually prepping for a quick launch into outer space. But Ghost Dog would advise us to be cool and stay in the present moment. Don't rush. Read and absorb. And I'm sure he'd tell you to leave a comment.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Toddie Gets Listed

We've done a Campion short, so why not a Haynes? In fact, why not two?

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Anyone Remember This One?

I bet you do. Doesn't this photo make you want to drop everything and watch it again this instant? I do, which is why it's a favorite.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

From Sir Again, Still with Love

Yep, still on this tip, but advertising my other course. Catalogue blurb goes like this:

What is a film review? How have reviews evolved as cinema has evolved? What do film reviewers want, and what criteria do they imply not only for the movies they critique but for the prose, the logic, and the details they enlist to convey that critique? Setting aside stars and thumbs and rotten tomatoes, we will engage with the literary, rhetorical, and stylistic aspects of film reviews as pieces of writing with their own history, considering the ways in which strong reviews require the same foundations as other expository essays (structure, argument, economy, evidence) but with specific and highly diverse relations to their readers, their venues, and their points of view. As an opportunity to bridge the "critical" and "creative" facets of literary study, participants in this course will study and write about film reviews by a host of crucial figures (including Rudolf Arnheim, Carl Sandburg, H.D., James Agee, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, James Baldwin, Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, Anthony Lane, and Stephanie Zacharek) and will also write and revise their own reviews in response to a wide range of required as well as self-appointed viewings. Neither the films nor the reviews will be taken lightly, and the course expects committed and ambitious students—but wit, style, and esteem for the "popular" are warmly welcomed.

...and I have the same question as in the last entry. You've got nine weeks to cover a breadth of film reviews published originally in English, in the U.S.A. (so no Cahiers, Eisenstein, etc.) And you've gotta leave time for some film screening, some review writing, and some expository essays about the styles and rhetorical habits of other reviewers. Who is indispensable? You can see a smattering of who I've got, but who would you teach? Another way to ask: who, to you, are the "essential" American movie reviewers, past or present?


From Sir with Love

Am I the only one who would love to read or hear a little more often about the day jobs and non-bloggish projects being conducted week-in and -out among our little school of fish. I probably talk about it more than most, partly because my job isn't always such a far cry from what I'm up to on this site, but I still think it's funny sometimes that even among many of the frequent commenters, I know who you think is going to win Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle but I don't really know what you do of a workday. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Either way, even if you don't want to show me yours, I'm showing you mine, because I'm so excited to teach this newly expanded Contemporary Women Filmmakers course next quarter (i.e., starting in January). I tried to bring the pretty with this flyer I made, which would be hard not to do, given the luscious and/or otherwise compelling images that my selected directors have so generously furnished in their films. Here's the write-up for the course, in case it's too fuzzy in the jpeg:

In recent years, more and more women film directors have risen to global prominence, producing important bodies of work and winning major prizes around the world. In saluting this diverse and expanding tradition, this course nonetheless poses the question: what (if anything) is gained and what (if anything) is lost by reading these films with regard to the directors' gender? In what ways do these films confront and complicate longstanding debates about gender and authorship, representation, sexuality, chauvinism, beauty, violence, voyeurism, and pornography? Alternatively, what is at stake in sidelining questions of gender and critiquing these films as "just" films? In this course, we will closely examine work by several modern directors whose films cover a wide range of genres and modes, including action, drama, satire, horror, comedy, political allegory, and the avant-garde. They also hail from such disparate areas of the globe as North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. While mastering some basic concepts of film analysis, we will also consider some key ideas in feminist theory and trace some of the public debates that shaped these films and their reception.

Huge kudos to anyone who can name all the films or makers based on these snapshots. But my question for you is, who else would you have wanted to see included as part of this class? I can sneak in plenty more stuff in lectures and through on-line clips. You know you want the undergraduates of Northwestern to be seeing all the best stuff. For the purposes of this class, "contemporary" means the last ten or fifteen years (though I'm cheating for Peel).

I already have a list of who I was sad to leave out, but I'll learn more from hearing your suggestions. Let loose! Just, you know, don't suggest Twilight.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

10, 20, 50 Actresses...

Nathaniel and I are having actressy mind-meld today, and while I know your first reaction is to ask what else is new, I didn't know that this morning he was going to start this offhanded meme about people's 20 favorite actresses. And he didn't know that last night, amid a strenuous bout of syllabus prep, I would have curricular need to screen Lady Sings the Blues and Our Town and thereby hit a mile-marker of 50 Best Actresses nominees to go, out of 398. Cosmic convergence? I'll let you decide, but for all you occult numerologists, check this out, too. Since Martha Scott in Our Town was the last nominee I had left from 1940, at the same moment that I have 50 nominees left to watch, I have exactly 50 Oscar years completed with regard to this category.

You can see what I have left to screen by scrolling down here. I think it's fair to say that I'm most excited at this point about these ten: Eagels '29, Bergner '35, Dunne '39, Garland '54, Bergman '56, Hayward '58, Hepburn '59, Wood '61, Stanley '64, and Ullmann '72. They won't be my last, since I'm intending to conclude with the '54 trifecta, give or take whenever I can make it out to UCLA to see The Barker. More yearly profiles to follow when the Favorites Countdown is finished.

Meanwhile, tossed off over lunch, my answer to Nathaniel's graphic meme. I couldn't help ranking a little bit in terms of tiers, and like everyone who's answering, I'm sure I'd swap some of the lower-rung candidates on a different day, but it speaks to my ardor that I had all these images saved up on my hard drive and knew just where to find them. Not necessarily my favorite performances, but it's what I found most quickly to work with:

Click to enlarge. In case your vision's bad or you're unfamiliar, that's Tilda Swinton presiding; then Katharine Hepburn, Jessica Lange, and Barbara Stanwyck; then Claudette Colbert, Holly Hunter, Julianne Moore, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, and Liv Ullmann; and finished off with Patricia Clarkson, Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Delphine Seyrig, Harriet Andersson, Agnes Moorehead, Meryl Streep, Cicely Tyson, Joan Allen, and Gena Rowlands.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Strange Fruit

But in the best possible way. And it's the family that's strange, not the fruit. Actually, it's not the fruit or the family, it's the lusciously offbeat way they get filmed:

By the way, speaking of superior short films, my friend Jeff Middents has been leading his students at American University through a course in short films, which has required them all to contribute to a Short Films Blog. Each week, the students post about short films that satisfy a given rubric, often including embedded YouTube footage or other links to the films they're discussing as well as their own appraisals. As a two-time guest judge on the students' work, I've been really impressed by their insights and delighted to have a chance to see so many wide-ranging shorts. I hope you'll feel inclined to have a look—and if you're feeling so inclined, leave an admiring comment, and help Jeff's hardest-working students earn some extra credit. The week-long focus on award-winning shorts, including several Oscar winners, may be especially interesting to many of you; I particularly enjoyed the footage and the write-ups in the entries about Glas (entry by Drew Rosensweig) and Der Fuehrer's Face (entry by Lindsay Z.). Plus, as an ardent lover of The Danish Poet, I can't fail to mention Trinnyallica's spiffy reflections on that one.

To Jeff's students, if you're reading: great job! And since you're newly able to relish the art of the short film, here is Peel in its eight-minute entirety!

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Mr. Altman & the Women

One more shout-out to the steps we're skipping. The actual daisy-chain after yesterday's paean to Positively True Adventures would lead you through an anti-corporate documentary; a queer Latin American prison drama; a spunky French sketchbook about all things Maggie Cheung; Holly Hunter visiting her parents for Thanksgiving; a South Central 'hood tragedy; a florid update on the Dracula legend; and one singularly ass-kicking flight attendant. And that's when you'd be ready to climb into this portal, right into a brilliant if somewhat erratic artist's imagination. It's better than Malkovich. It's Altman...

"He's always askin' me out and everything, but I'm not gonna go out with him till he gets over that cold..."

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Hey, Shanna, You Made My Cut!

So, one last reminder: we've been leap-frogging and lily-padding up the list in order to fill holes that were created by my reshuffling, a necessity after resuming this hibernating Favorites project. If we were advancing step by step, as we'll soon have the luxury to do, we would have advanced from the Woody Allen duo I unveiled yesterday at #48 to everyone's favorite water-safety crusader at #47, then to three barely consolable women at #46, and then to yet more Woody, at his dearest and most delicate, at #45. I'm hoping all these new entries are luring people back to the ones I wrote before the great Rip Van Winkle nap of 2006-2008.

But any cheerleader who's worth her high kicks is also up to a huge, bounding jump now and then, so if you're vaulting straight from #48 to #44, you're in good company. Just watch your back, and be careful not to upstage anyone who cares even more wildly than you do... (P.S. Slightly edited, since I forgot to explain why I often only want to watch the first half.)

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Two F's that Deserve A's

As if it wasn't clear enough in the 1980s that you needed to be careful where you poked around, here's a desecrated body and a vengeful one-night stand to keep you celibate and terrified forever. But of course, if that's all they were, they wouldn't be personal favorites...

And while we're moving up the ladder, plugging holes at a steady clip, and while we're already talking about relationships that you wouldn't want to emulate at home, here's another two-fer, in the 48th spot:

All four are horror movies, really. There's something in here for everyone's nightmares, and though I don't worry about turning into a fly or having an affair, I do hope I don't grow up to be one of those professors who looks up at 50 and has no idea where her life has gone, and whether she actively pushed it away. Another Woman: a horror movie for the tenure track.

Lastly, if you're wondering, there aren't many more of these joint entries left to go. I have forced myself the higher I climb to make up my own damn mind. And also, I mentioned in the Adam's Rib entry that Katharine Hepburn, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore are the best-represented actors on this list, with four titles apiece. Woody Allen and David Cronenberg are the leading directors, also with four apiece, including the movies indexed in this entry. Keep all this in mind as you guess your way toward #1...

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Thanks for the Memories, Jane!

December 3: To you, just a Wednesday, with perhaps a gleam of specialness for being Julianne Moore's birthday (very commendable of you to remember). But for me, the 15th anniversary of the first time I saw The Piano, alone, at a matinée screening across the street from my public high school in Fairfax, Virginia. Nothing was ever the same afterward, and it still isn't. A giant (tuning?) fork in my road. My "mind's voice," in Ada McGrath's terms, is still hugely influenced by this film.

So, please permit a day-long interruption in the Favorites entries while we celebrate 15 gorgeous and clickable images from my actual favorite movie ever made, which would certainly top the countdown if it weren't disqualified by also being one of the best movies ever made.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

She Gave Him Class. She Gave Him Sex.

Wait, isn't he supposed to give her something? In fairness, he did. I'd call it venerability. To say nothing of companionship. Such as it was, though. Got all her best years, the old drunk. But then, she seemed to like it that way. Whatever. None of my biz.

All I'm saying is, I love Adam's Rib, and I hope you do, too. And I hope you love this picture. Love the black & white. Soak it up. Because I'm afraid you won't be seeing much more of it as the countdown continues...

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