Directed by Sean DurkinUnited States | 2011
The realization that the film is a portrait of Martha’s subjectivity does not come instantly due to Durkin’s emphasis on long takes, his suppression of extra-diegetic sound, and his refusal to write his way inside his main character’s head space, all of which are general signifiers of objectivity. But what Durkin has achieved is a way of presenting the subjectivity of a person who no longer understands her own ideals, desires, and actions, who indeed is a mere physical shell missing a cohesive soul. Thematically speaking, the film’s post-Manson indictment of the identity-shattering mob mentality of cults couldn’t be clearer, but it’s the depth of detail that Durkin and Olsen infuse into Martha’s character that really allows the parable to breathe.
Directed by Werner HerzogUnited States, Germany | 2009
Are we experiencing the Orestian odyssey that’s playing out in Brad’s head, or perhaps his schizophrenia? One is forced to make conjectures like that in order to make sense of the film. After one viewing, I don’t buy the descent into madness of a character when everyone else is equally mad; that just seems terribly counter-intuitive, even for Herzog. Maybe I’m wrong. If so, there’s plenty of reason to see it again. If nothing else, it serves as a stimulus for discussion of the artist’s role in his creation and of the line that separates tragedy and mordant superfluity. I’d like to think of it as an unintentional satire. Then I wonder if intentions even matter. Then I remember vividly some of the scenes here and their inhabitants, like Uncle Ted, proprietor of an ostrich farm and purveyor of hilarious homophobic slurs…
Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel SchulmanUnited States | 2011
…the feeling of watching events unfold with living presence as though we’re inseparable from the Lovecraftian otherness of those things which assault the protagonists; not that we’re holding the camera, but that we’re manipulating the substance of its gaze. This also contributes to the inescapable sense of Toby as a kind of guru for the girls, that his final ‘appearance’ is something simultaneously messianic and evil. The fact that the ending takes place at the home of the grandmother and the filmmakers don’t bother to familiarize us with its boundaries enhances the sense of dislocation; we’ve spent enough time at Julie and Dennis’ home, and especially the girls’ bedroom, to gather our bearings, but here there’s no such luxury: it’s dark and dangerous and Dennis doesn’t even know where the light-switches are.
Directed by Julie TaymorUnited States | 2010
Taymor’s “solution” is not to try to suppress or smooth any of it out, but rather to let it play in all of its discordance. Ebert stated that Taymor “doesn’t capture Shakespeare’s tone… or his meaning,” but I couldn’t disagree more, because Shakespeare’s tone precisely is that jarring combination of high art and low art, comedy with tragedy, reality with fantasy… That “…and the kitchen sink” sense is what Taymor achieves. Perhaps she doesn’t achieve the fluidity and flawlessness of Shakespeare, but who could? Part of me thinks it’s because we’ve become spoiled by “realism” in film, and there aren’t many points in this film where Taymor goes for realism.
Directed by Tom HollandUnited States | 1985
Importantly for the film’s tone the special effects really do deliver. Granted they’re heavily indebted to John Landis’ landmark An American Werewolf in London but they still impress in their own right. The comedy may take centre-stage but when characters face off against each other blood, viscera and various other forms of goop flow freely. Using all the old school effects of the day—puppets, stop-motion, super-imposition and various other forms of trick photography—the monsters here have an immediacy and physicality that unfortunately has been largely lost in today’s world of computer generated imagery. I know it sounds somewhat curmudgeonly but, as film looks best as a physical celluloid strip flickering past a light source, special effects look best with a genuine physical presence of their own.
Directed by Jack HillUnited States | 1968
One gets the feeling that if the Merryes had been left alone, they might never have been allowed to become monsters—remaining instead withering freaks in a microcosm of familial love. It’s only when the outside world comes calling that things go wrong, and it’s easy to see Spider Baby as an anti-establishment polemic, a bloody Peter Pan story aimed at keeping squares at bay. It’s a theme that would be explored and modified a few years later in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the key difference being that Leatherface’s family was a tad more proactive in procuring their meals.
Directed by Noah BaumbachUnited States | 2010
My biggest issue with the film is Baumbach’s treatment of Florence. In contrast to Roger’s pathetic nobility, she’s given the thankless role of the confused girl who’s much too kind and vulnerable a soul to be sleeping with L.A. douchebags—including Roger. I kept waiting for her to assert herself, to actually make something of her half-dream of becoming a singer. Instead, she proclaims her admiration for Roger’s do-nothing philosophy and falls further in love with a guy who loves hating himself too much to consider women anything but moist and ready Band-Aids.
Directed by Steven SoderberghUnited States | 2011
In a film where the putrid, lifeless shades of green, brown, and blue expose the clammy textures of hands and faces, it’s only natural that criticisms of misanthropy are raised, and that attempts to sketch a complete portrait of humanity fall short. Then again, Contagion is a horror film that’s more about process than people, and it becomes more effective the less it characterizes and individualizes. Not only does Soderbergh’s overflowing cast undercut the hegemony of the Hollywood star system, it situates people beneath the alien processes of nature. That no character takes center stage here – when Damon begins to, the film lurches awkwardly – is a testament to the collective paranoia at work, the fact that no individual is above the heedless trajectory of the virus.
Directed by Allan HolzmanUnited States | 1982
Forbidden World itself was recycled from Corman’s Alien-cribbing sci-fi from the previous year, Galaxy of Terror, an epic by Corman standards as it cost an estimated $700,000. Of course, his most ambitious project to date had been 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, a simultaneous ode to the Star Wars saga and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the film that first employed a young James Cameron as part of the visual effects crew. Cameron graduated to Galaxy of Terror, his talents touching nearly everything in that film, especially the design of the sets—including the walls of the space shuttle made from fast food take-out containers—which can be seen again in Forbidden World if one looks closely. The metamorph is almost symbolic of the kind of filmmaking which Corman’s talented underlings so excelled at: taking existing paradigms and retrofitting them (inexpensively).
Directed by Gavin O'ConnorUnited States | 2011
Part of the movie’s brilliance is the way it gives hints of backstory without resorting to flashbacks or long speeches about specific things that happened to the Conlons earlier on. This is a story about aftershocks, and the screenwriters keenly observe the splintering effect that alcoholism can have on the relationships between fathers and sons and siblings. Paddy is so reviled by his boys that it’s hard to imagine the broken-down old man as being a monster; we get a glimpse of that later, in a scene that’s surprising in both its setup and resolution. By the time Brendan enters round five of the climactic match, we feel both the weight of his reluctance to take down the feral beast Tommy has become and the need to provide for his new family; it’s a devil’s bargain whose outcome is not a cheerful ending, but the beginning of a much tougher journey.
Directed by Matt PorterfieldUnited States | 2010
Erecting an observational ensemble study atop a fictional foundation allows Porterfield to achieve two unique effects: that of drama and reality coexisting in never quite clearly demarcated degrees, and that of real people pulling from their own memories and life experiences to comment on the subject of mortality. Putty Hill is essentially about people, their stories, and the way that those stories find ways to link up, and Porterfield’s attention to the simplest, most mundane of behaviors is never less than rapt.
Directed by Morgan MeadUnited States | 2009
Just as the screenplay tweaks storytelling conventions, so do Mead and cinematographer Nathan Wilson put playful spins on fancy “film school” shots. From the hackneyed water-cooler scene that’s shot at a harsh angle to accentuate the oppressive, ice-cold block-windows of Jerry and David’s office, to the surprising take on the two-people-sitting-at-a-very-long-table shot, the number and variety of interesting-looking scenes enhance even the most mundane settings (the cutest example is the “Dead End” sign outside of Jerry’s house, which I didn’t pick up on until almost the end of the movie). The key to Mead’s success, I think, is that, like Quentin Tarantino, he realizes that even the most clichéd premise can be made into a wildly entertaining, interesting movie.
Directed by Nicolas Winding RefnUnited States | 2011
After the first outburst, Refn sets the expectation that something awful could happen whenever scenes get too quiet… Plus, when The Driver freaks out on people, chunks of blood and teeth fly at the screen in ways that would make Patrick Lussier shake his head. The key tension-robber in these scenes is the lack of motivation and empathy we have towards The Driver. He’s somehow a vicious, conscienceless killer and a tender sweetheart who just needs to settle down with the right girl. We get no back story, only lots and lots (and lots and lots) of staring; the kind that’s meant to give audiences plenty of time to create their own bullshit theories about what’s going on inside his head—it gives the screenwriter a break and helps the director come in under budget by padding out the run-time.
Directed by James WhaleUnited States | 1935
It’s easy to see why this film is so highly regarded, even today. In an era of 3D showiness and “more is more” evisceration effects, the subtle, mind-bending horrors of Bride of Frankenstein really stand out. You can call this old-fashioned filmmaking, but I’d be willing to bet this movie would be a hit if Universal pushed for a two-week, limited re-release. I realize I’m giving horror audiences way more credit than many people think they deserve, but above all, I think what draws fans to scare-shows is a desire to be wowed and creeped out. And there is plenty of unsettling weirdness to be found here.
Directed by Bennett MillerUnited States | 2011
Moneyball raises questions almost effortlessly, but for the sake of telling a story it wanders into pedantry. The hinted-at debate about team payrolls and player salaries never forms a coherent dialectic. Non-baseball fans won’t know, for instance, about the luxury tax imposed on the wealthiest teams (or the fact that those wealthiest tend to generate the most revenue for baseball as a whole) from watching Moneyball. If anything, the narrative choices in the film reinforce the idea that teams like the New York Yankees pilfer talent and buy championships. This is still a hotly debated contention in the baseball world and by no means fact. But all of that’s okay, and here’s why: Moneyball isn’t a documentary. And it’s not about the Oakland A’s and their magical season. That story is told obliquely at best. The focus is on Beane.
Directed by Stephen SoderberghUnited States | 2011
The central problem, I think, is that Soderbergh invests so much into being a “cool” director that he forgets how important warm and likable characters are (or at least ones that are interesting beyond their descriptions). People give him crap for making the fluffy and obnoxious Ocean’s movies, but in terms of characterization, I see little qualitative difference between his indie and studio pictures. He could take a page from David Fincher, who manages to create slick worlds inhabited by intelligent and memorable people, instead of unrelatable vessels who act as if they were born when “Action” was called.
Directed by Michael W. Dean, Kenneth ShiffrinUnited States | 2005
His decade of drug use is glossed over—a blown opportunity, in my opinion, to explore his work pre- and post-heroin. And I didn’t find out that he has four kids until the closing minutes of the documentary. These offenses are worse than burying the lead. One doesn’t include a great story intro like, “I asked him where the $60,000 went, and he showed me the track marks on his arms” and then refuse to dig deeper. And learning that Selby died practically broke despite his numerous successes and large family raises even more questions that the filmmakers seem to think aren’t nearly as interesting as celebrity fawning. Another issue, which has less to do with the movie than with perspective, is the inclusion of a segment in which the filmmakers let us know just how much Selby hated George W. Bush.
Directed by Nicholas RayFrance, United States | 1957
The action scenes are grisly, unromanticized and terse, brutal slashes of explosions and shrapnel that have no glorifying outcome, only death. Even the early raid on the Nazi headquarters, the only out-and-out action setpiece of the movie, is too blistering (yet still classically shot) to be all that rousing, and the shot of a soldier busting a portrait of Hitler seems more a show of childish impudence than a victorious gesture. Throughout the film, the action filmmaking quotes, directly and indirectly, the same training exercises seen at the beginning of the film, making war into a sick game. Ray frames numerous shots to maintain suspense while robbing the film of its potentially inspirational power, his framing always emphasizing the isolation of the commandos instead of overpowering dedication and conviction.
Directed by Peter WeirUnited States, United Arab Emirates | 2010
It’s in the desert that the seeds of character development finally bear fruit. We see the group struggle to find water. Mister Smith spots an oasis to the east, but is begged by Janusz to continue south as he thinks it a mirage. After an arduous montage, there’s a brief respite at the oasis, merely a water well and a few skinny trees. The survival motif truly reaches harrowing levels after this, with some of the party dying before they leave the desert. One of these death scenes, in particular, is beautifully composed while heartbreaking and all by itself redeems the slow build-up. At this point, Weir’s characters have earned our investment in their journey, but, sadly, the reward for our patience is their agony and demise.
Directed by Rupert WyattUnited States | 2011
True, Caesar and his furry kin don’t always look 100% convincing, but I blame that on neither the performance nor the technology. It’s a side effect of the Uncanny Valley Rule, which, in terms of discussing cinema, has come to mean that any attempt to render a realistic human or animal inevitably causes a dissociative reaction in the audience. With Caesar, we’re presented with an ape that looks wholly convincing, but because the role calls for him to do things that are decidedly un-ape-like, we’re constantly snapping in and out of the movie’s fiction. The effect takes some getting used to, especially if you’ve seen less-than-stellar TV clips. But in the context of the movie, Caesar achieves a greater level of realism and relatability than any CG life form that’s come before.
Directed by Steven SpielbergUnited States | 2001
Spielberg brings out the humanity of these robots in what is, aesthetically speaking, the film’s most garish and ill-considered setpiece. The Flesh Fair, a hick rodeo-cum-rock festival-cum-Luddite autodafé, is as gaudy and sloppy as the vision of the Lost Boys’ hideout in Hook, a collision of simplistic elements made into a collage of pop cultural items Spielberg clearly does not himself know. But the scene is also one of the film’s most vital, forcing the human backlash to mechas to confront its wildest fear: their true replacement. With David front and center (again surrounded by a halo), the crowd blanches, convinced he is a real child. Hobby earlier dodged the question of reciprocal love on behalf of mechas by responding, “Didn’t God create Adam to love Him?” Here, we clearly see mankind having taken on the role of deities.
Directed by Monte HellmanUnited States | 1971
When he forcefully regales his passengers with the particulars of his Pontiac as cited in the car manual, one gets the sense that he doesn’t grasp any real working knowledge of these terms, only that he obtains pleasure from sounding esoteric and loaded. This artificiality extends to his personal life, which he mythologizes in many mutating shapes and sizes; at one point he’s an ex-military officer, another time he’s a man who abandoned his wife and daughter for life on the road, and later he’s the guardian of Taylor and Wilson. Slowly this role-playing transforms from pestering to deeply tragic and deformed, the vague ramblings of a dreamer…
Directed by Woody AllenUnited States | 1977
I loved the non-linear portions of the film. By seeing the Alvy/Annie story unfold out of order and interspersed with scenes from Alvy’s first marriage and a couple of failed relationships in between, we avoid the movie’s central problem until about the last half-hour: the movie is about a couple casually coming together, casually doing nothing, and then casually drifting apart. These scenes are fairly realistic, wonderfully acted, and intermittently funny. But in the end, when Alvy shrugs and re-iterates his Groucho philosophy, I was unsatisfied.
Directed by Miguel ArtetaUnited States | 2000
Chuck & Buck is listed as a comedy and, ostensibly, that’s what it is, yet the laughs are only found in the painfully awkward social ineptness of Buck and his strained attempts at recapturing Chuck’s friendship, and any laughs that leave the audience’s lips are most likely to be out of a prickly uncomfortableness. This is mostly because the film is shot with the intimacy of a character drama and, as Keaton said, tragedy is shot in close-up and comedy in long shot. Chuck & Buck certainly has some of the most startlingly consistent uses of close-ups…
Directed by Woody AllenSpain, United States | 2011
Midnight in Paris is a beautiful movie, bursting with hope, love and an appreciation of one of the world’s greatest cities on par with De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Sure, it’s cliche to build a movie around the idea that Paris is the romance capital of the world—but Allen makes a strong case; he takes great pains to make the city of the present just as alluring and full as the Paris of the past, a reinforcement of his thesis that people can find excitement and inspiration in their everyday lives and that nostalgia is as much of a prison as a bad relationship.
Directed by Jack ConradUnited States | 1973
“I’ve been here two days and I’m sick of this place,” Bobby Lee tells Ruthie. There’s a loose, improvisational feel to the early scenes between these two. They argue, make up, then argue some more. The robbery itself is equally interesting. Bobby Lee picks up Ruthie in his pickup truck. “You wanna get breakfast first,” he asks her. She says no, so they park, go into the store next to the bank and buy some bandanas to cover their faces. In the long, wordless scene that follows they come out of the store, sit on a bench between two elderly men, chat, and try on their bandanas while eyeing the deputy sheriff lounging on a bench across the street. Lazy, twangy guitar music plays on the soundtrack.
Directed by J.J. AbramsUnited States | 2011
The ensuing collision sets in motion a violent and prolonged explosion, which, with its flailing of shrapnel and series of fiery clouds, would have satisfied our little Michael Bay had the crew been prepared to film it while running away. It’s a shockingly effective piece of spectacle and a killer inciting incident, visceral and unexpected in its impact, a bold contrast to all the quiet drama leading up to it. So frightening, even, that when Joe and Charles spot the story on the news the next day and refer to it as looking like “a disaster movie”, it offers a sharp realization on the boys’ part of the cinema’s sheer exploitation of real, palpable terror. Abrams never quite digs deeply into this tentative ethical subtext, but it’s there nonetheless, if only for a moment suggesting that these boys’ seemingly innocent adoration for explosive spectacle and their preoccupation with themes of murder and gore (even in the goofy context of zombies) comes from a true and scary place.
Directed by Nicholas RayUnited States | 1954
Her appearance is silent, but it might as well have been accompanied by a lightning strike and peal of thunder, so dynamic and convention-upturning is Crawford’s presence. Her tacit, masculine strength instantly awes the men conversing about her down below. Speaking to the titular character who just rode into town at Vienna’s invitation, one of the locals meekly confides, “Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” Crawford immediately establishes Vienna’s liberated, aggressive demeanor, her wide eyes bulging with a combination of of authority, power and a lust she knows she can satisfy at any moment.
Directed by Peter ManoogianUnited States | 1986
She and the Mandroid decide to go seek their revenge on Dr. Reeves and stop whatever evil, ill-defined plan he is concocting. So far, so good. Eliminators has taken all the major elements of The Terminator and rearranged them in such a muddled, haphazard way you can’t quite accuse it of plagiarism. It’s almost as if the filmmakers hadn’t actually seen The Terminator themselves, but were basing their movie off of a friend’s drunken, half-remembered recounting of the plot. There’s even an awkward attempt at establishing a catchphrase along the lines of Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back.”
Directed by Bill RebaneUnited States | 1987
“Because I split my pants,” Dutch confesses—a comedic high never again reached by Twister’s Revenge!. Not only that, but like Ophelia’s death in Hamlet this great pants-splitting tragedy happens off-stage—a truly odd choice for a lowbrow comedy. Imagine if a Three Stooges short consisted of Larry, Moe and Curly sitting down and calmly discussing how they had once poked each other in the eyes at a different, unseen location.
Directed by Craig BrewerUnited States | 2007
Sounds compelling, right? It is, but what made me nervous for the film so early on was the uneven acting from Timberlake and Ricci. I was surprised by Timberlake’s amateur-hour performance because of how well he did in Alpha Dog, which also came out in 2006. Perhaps it’s because he’s so used to conveying confidence that I didn’t buy him as a nervous, deep-South kid with war jitters. Even the way he vomited in the toilet before walking out the door rang false; he made jazz hands while gripping the bowl.
Directed by Quentin DupieuxUnited States | 2010
Had Quentin Dupieux committed to making a sincere horror movie with a ridiculous premise, or even a horror farce that played up the genre’s worst conventions, Rubber might have had a chance. Instead, his film has a cynical, grooved surface that becomes evident once the shiny novelty wears off. It’s as if he’s made the film specifically to be under appreciated when it hits theatres, so that he can claim he’s made a cult film. He likely imagines wild midnight screenings at art-house theatres nationwide, where people show up in cheesy sheriff’s costumes bearing whole turkeys to share with their friends, while dodging inflated toy tires ahead of the previews.
Directed by Terrence MalickUnited States | 2011
Malick’s grand ruse is his inclusion of the planet-forming/cell-division/dinosaur stuff. None of this has any thematic resonance with Jack’s story, unless you count the fact that, yes, all of the people in this film descended from cosmic goo. Some will argue that there must be some greater significance simply because it’s all mashed together with the main story; but I have no problem calling that out as nonsense. The proof lies in Jack’s story, a clichéd horror-behind-the-picket-fences yarn we’ve seen a thousand times before done in at least twelve more effective iterations. Malick again draws attention away from his problems by jumping around in time…
Directed by Terrence MalickUnited States | 2011
From an amorphous balloon of orange light in the center of the screen begins a series of Brakhage-like gyrations of color that culminate in a representation of the creation of the solar system that slowly morphs from abstraction to recognizable forms. Within this are certain blobs that resemble inner body fluids, perhaps an attempt to link the macro processes of the Big Bang to the micro processes of human birth. After a meteor strikes Earth, Malick drops in to observe the primordial stew of liquids and solids on the planet’s surface that eventually produce oceans and landscapes. The images created in this sequence – advised by special effects legend Douglas Trumbull, referenced from NASA, and shot using either 65 mm or the massive IMAX format – are impossibly high-fidelity, giving the whole sequence the uncanny sense of actually floating over this universal phenomenon rather than just witnessing cinematic images of it.
Directed by Billy WilderUnited States | 1953
Holden may have disliked the role, but Wilder had enough sympathy for both of them. It’s a common point that Wilder always felt like a Hollywood outsider, and that likely engendered his sympathy for outsider protagonists and anti-heroes. This is all the more evident in light of one of the key changes made between play and film; in the former, Animal played the role of comic relief as well as spy, while in the film Wilder transfers the spy-role to another character. It’s probably no accident that he chose to allocate it to the most archetypal “All-American good-guy hero” in a cast full of them…
Directed by Steve WangUnited States | 1997
Before Jason Statham and Crank there stood Dacascos as Toby Wong, a diminutive Chinese martial arts expert with a bio-engine in his chest that afforded him super-fast reflexes and super-human strength. The problem is that Toby doesn’t really want to continue working for The Leung Corporation that installed his engine. The love of a good woman (now deceased, of course) freed him of the will to be a covert assassin and now he’s journeyed to California to sell the technology to another, presumably slightly less evil, corporate entity.
Directed by Darren AronofskyUnited States | 2010
One reason I think his more viscerally styled direction works here is that it balances well against the melodramatic bent to the narrative. Melodrama is a particularly apt description, because while it does refer more commonly to exaggerated plot and characters, it comes from the root “melos” meaning “music”. Both music and exaggerations play a prominent role in the film, and they’re the elements that situate it more in the realm of neo-classical fantasy as opposed to a more sober, objective perspective à la Haneke’s The Piano Teacher.
Directed by George CukorUnited States | 1936
Garbo considered her role as Marguerite Gautier the best performance of her career, even though she lost the Oscar to Luise Rainer for The Good Earth. It is indeed the best performance I’ve seen her give. Marguerite is a complex and demanding role, requiring a delicate navigation between the poles of self-reliance and dependence, cynical strength and romantic vulnerability, vigorous health and withered weakness, and the ambiguity and clarity of desire. In a word, Marguerite is dynamic. We’re never certain which direction she’s going to choose, and that ambiguity creates much of the dramatic tension. Garbo is a bit more convincing as the aloof and distant manipulator more so than the love-melted romantic interest, but even as the latter she creates moments of genuine pathos, especially as the film wears on.
Directed by Duncan JonesUnited States | 2011
But the most glaring flaw is in its ending, which suggests Jones and Ripley may be the only two people to have actually preferred the tacked-on codas to films like Blade Runner and Brazil. It does not successfully unify the film’s split between the intellectual and emotional; if anything, it is the final ax blow that fully cleaves the wedge. Still, the film does make for an ace thriller, and I forgave it much as I was watching it. Only after the fact does this cataloging of issues seem severe. The film may be a jumble with its multiple planes of perception and supposed reality (and I’m not even getting into the holes of logic and plot), but it’s a jumble that actually doesn’t let itself get out of hand and derail the momentum, a rarity for this kind of film.
Directed by Tiffanie DeBartoloUnited States | 1996
The only complication in Frankie’s life is that she’s fallen for a guy who has a girlfriend. David’s three-year sweetheart Molly (Leslie Stevens) is studying to be a lawyer—meaning she’s a square and a sellout who doesn’t understand passionate living. It’s bad enough that this is what Frankie makes of her after one two-minute introduction and that she spends the rest of the film trying to seduce David away from her because she’s in love, but DeBartolo also seems to share this cartoon opinion of Molly, as evidenced by her character being an awkward soggy blanket (which is understandable, I’d say, when walking into a coffee shop full of freaks and seeing your boyfriend dancing with another girl).
Directed by Francis Ford CoppolaUnited States | 1974
Harry’s suspicions regarding the potential violence surrounding the conversation are unclear (evidenced by the thick fog) and his attempts to attain freedom and clarity in the face of this predicament are ill-advised, for he is too withdrawn and self-absorbed to feasibly find an answer. The ourobouric loop suggested by this self-defeating psychology is mimicked by the melancholy jazz piano that is a constant motif throughout, a piece of music whose constantly ascending and descending melody implies a never-ending aversion to climax or catharsis.
Directed by Frank PiersonUnited States | 2000
Like the good/bad issue in art, the entire case was built around exactly how human beings define two words, obscenity and art. Definitions of both are given in the film, but they utterly fail to help us (or anyone) in assigning such labels to Mapplethorpe’s work, relying instead on how people react to it… The same issue has followed pornography through its various trials, perhaps most famously leading to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stating “I know it when I see it”. But what happens when we don’t know it when we see it, or when different people think they know different things after seeing it?
Directed by Mark RomanekUnited Kingdom, United States | 2010
It’s strange in a medium like film where manipulating time is one of its two essential aspects (the other being images) that temporal integrity would be so important. Not so much chronological linearity, but a respect for (in _Benjamin Button_’s case) how a life progresses, or (in the case of this film) how history already progressed. Perhaps it’s also about the integrity of images. We can imagine a world about a man who ages backwards or a world where people are grown to be donors in literature, but seeing them realized in concrete images adds an element of unrealism that negates any emotional or thematic impact that such a premise could make.
Directed by Michael BliedenUnited States | 2007
What gives Blieden a leg-up on Moore and Spurlock is that the filmmaker’s agenda doesn’t cloud the picture from the first frame; it’s not until later on that we realize there’s even an agenda being set forth. By demystifying pot through example, and by showing how smart and civic-minded its proponents are, we’re left to wonder what the media and cultural demonization are all about. Like the finest Afghan Kush, Super High Me merely plants the seeds of consciousness expansion.
Directed by Tony ScottUnited States | 2006
“What if there’s more than physics?” asks Carlin when confronted with the seeming impossibility of communicating with the past to change the future. Déjà Vu simplifies science and its cagey reluctance to ruin an experiment even if it could benefit others, but Scott incorporates faith into science in a manner seldom seen in film. It will take a combination of the two to undo great tragedy: the science can explain why images nag at faint memories and seem to explain what’s happening, but it takes faith to risk everything to fully uncover what might be nothing more than a trick of the mind.
Directed by Stanley KubrickUnited Kingdom, United States | 1987
…even an artist of Kubrick’s piercing intellect and artistic insight has trouble finding anything new to say about war or any new way to depict it. A better title for the film would’ve been “Straight Jacket”, as it constantly feels like Kubrick is trying to shed the traditional limitations that his subject matter has imposed on him, and FMJ’s best and worst moments are always the result of his success or failure at that endeavor. Kubrick faced this same problem before with Paths of Glory. But while Paths found him at his most dramatically conventional (and, arguably, dramatically potent), FMJ finds him attempting to incorporate the more ambiguous and provocative stylings of the films he cultivated from 2001 onward.
Directed by Gareth EdwardsUnited States | 2010
Maybe if the leads had been given room to flesh out their characters via performance, they would have been compelling to watch. But McNairy and Able wander through Monsters with the disaffected non-presence of people annoyed at crappy cell phone service rather than strangers thrown together at the apocalypse. I’ve never met a photojournalist, but there’s nothing world-weary or even smart about Kaulder; he’s a poon-hound with a tramp-stamp and the kind of stoner ignorance that would get him killed in the first act of any other monster movie (Why turn over your hotel-room mattress looking for a passport that’s clearly been stolen by some chick you picked up at a Mexican bar? Do you think she played a prank by hiding it in the room? Or is it more likely she skipped town?).
Directed by Christopher NolanUnited States, United Kingdom | 2010
Nolan has always been an enormously exacting, matter-of-fact director, one for whom rationality and a concrete sense of internal logic always supersedes any indications of the fantastic, the surreal, or the unpredictable. He goes at his films with tweezers, painstakingly arranging the ingredients, making sure not to nudge anything even slightly out of place. And yet he has now repeatedly gravitated towards extravagant, exotic material: magicians, sleazy criminal underworlds and costumed vigilantes (a subject previously given the Tim Burton treatment, Burton being a director who couldn’t have any less in common with Nolan), and now dreams, the most perplexing ability humans possess.
Directed by Christopher NolanUnited States, United Kingdom | 2010
Nolan’s ability to manipulate time in the dream levels (in which time travels 20x slower each level down you go (10 hours in the real world turns into 200 hours in the first level of the dream, etc.) allows for some pyrotechnic cross-editing as the action in each level is balanced with and affects the other. On a second viewing, I was especially struck by how the time spent on the deeper levels dwarfs those of each previous levels, allowing Nolan to use editing to visually and temporally suggest the temporal discontinuity between them. This makes for some of the most intense action scenes filmed in the last ten years, as the ripple effects of each world compound into the others, creating multiple levels of high-strung drama.
Directed by Christopher NolanUnited States, United Kingdom | 2010
It’s perhaps disappointing then that, with intricate plotting developed with Nolan’s customary flair, Inception can’t help but highlight that the man’s films, as works of art, haven’t moved on the slightest bit since he made his first major mark with Memento or perhaps even before that with the dark and brooding Following. As he adds to his repertoire it’s hard not to look fondly back on the rough edges of his debut and wish he had made more out of them. Instead the master craftsman has simply honed his techniques to perfection in making entirely closed worlds into which viewers can escape for a short while. That’s perhaps not a complaint so much as an observation. Even if Inception can only boast escape it at least fulfills that promise quite fully.
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel CoenUnited States | 2010
[Mattie] is hurled backwards by the force of the gun into a cavernous hole in the ground where a pack of snakes emerge from the torso of a skeleton. It’s like a punishment delivered from on high, while Rooster’s subsequent cutting and sucking from her hand where a snake bit it (which removes the farcical quality of an earlier, similar scene of Rooster violently pulling out LaBoeuf’s tooth) seems to have an almost cosmic sense of karma. True Grit ‘s concluding twenty minutes possess an iconic mournfulness missing from the rest of the film, climaxing in a poetic collage of superimpositions of Rooster carrying Mattie home on a fatigued horse that obliquely recalls F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel CoenUnited States | 2010
As played by Josh Brolin, [Chaney] is a backwards idiot who has a tragically funny voice that constantly mumbles, “Everything is against me,” not the monster we have imagined through Mattie’s description and the trail of his misdeeds—a perpetual loser, someone who never gets a lucky break. Upon sitting with him again, he is, as Josh Brolin has said in an interview, “bizarrely conversational” and it seems that even Mattie feels sorry for him. This complicates the morality of vengeance as well as the satisfaction of finding what you have nearly killed yourself looking for (that is, of course, until Chaney turns into the sociopath we have suspected him to be). The Coens didn’t have to do much else than stick to the source material to make a Coens film.
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel CoenUnited States | 2010
Which brings me to the film’s second major problem. For much of the run-time, our heroes are in pursuit of the big, bad Tom Chaney. LaBoeuf talks about his previous crimes, including the murder of a Texas state senator, and how it’s tricky for even just two men to try and take him alive. Chaney is painted as a ruthless super-villain; so when we finally meet him and discover that he’s a just a dirty half-wit with an underbite the air is completely sucked out of the rest of the story. The cliché that a movie is only as good as its antagonist is especially true here. I guess the message is that Chaney is dangerous because he’s dumb and mean, but as a force to be reckoned with, he may be the lamest outlaw in the history of westerns.
Directed by David FincherUnited States | 2010
The rapid incisiveness of Sorkin’s screenplay has so immersed us in the excitement of the moment that it’s forced us to forget the fallout of the future. When the scene hits, it hits like an atom bomb. The added unexpectedness of how it comes down, masterfully orchestrated through Fincher’s cross editing, makes it all the more powerful. It also helps that the scene marks the third iteration of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ main musical theme; a haunting, three note piano piece that reverberates, suspended over atmospheric industrial textures.
Directed by David FincherUnited States | 2010
“You’re not an asshole. You’re just trying so hard to be one,” the benign, almost angelic paralegal and slightly corny expository mouthpiece, and one of the few bum notes here, tells Zuckerberg after the deposition and before leaving him alone in the empty conference room. It’s a line freighted with redemptive balm. But Zuckerberg is still too lost in his own orbit for it to have any brunt. That penultimate image of him sitting alone at his laptop, though, sending a friend request to the one that got away, is the very condition of our online selves: everywhere at once and nowhere at all.
Directed by David O. RussellUnited States | 2010
His turn as Dicky is a ghastly reminder that Bale is one of the finest—if not the finest—actors of my generation, a performer so committed that he dropped a ton of weight and picked up a deliciously charming Boston accent (I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually became a crack addict in order to go full Method). Dicky is a cartoon for much of the movie, and that works in the film’s favor. His big-eyed antics; his jumping out the window of a crack house multiple times; his incessant bragging about the Sugar Ray bout—all of these things denote a fractured, addictive personality that uses just the right amount of exaggeration to show us how obvious his problem is to everyone except his mother and sisters.
Directed by Danny BoyleUnited States, United Kingdom | 2010
Boyle fetishizes the whiz-bang technology at his disposal, copying the aesthetic of early David Fincher, early Darren Aronofsky, and modern Neveldine/Taylor, without asking himself whether or not that aesthetic applies to the story he’s trying to tell. With Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream and Crank, the amped-up shots, kooky transitions and bizarre sound effects contributed to the audience’s understanding of their characters’ psychotic, drugged-out states. The key is that—in most cases—the directors knew when to tone down the silliness to balance out the frenzy with drama. 127 Hours is one note, all the way through, and it plays less like an adventurer facing down death at a glacier’s pace than an aloof MTV reality star recording absolutely everything while overdosing on Mountain Dew.
Directed by Lisa CholodenkoUnited States | 2010
It’s not so much a problem that the film wears its genre on its sleeve as that it wraps it up under the pretense of being a genuine, realistic depiction of an “alternative” family life. Much of it comes down to the screenplay, which is just too traditionally structured and predictable to bring that kind of true-to-life spontaneity that you get from the best indie films. It begins idealistically, develops clichéd conflicts, then resolves them through superficial sentimentality. Essentially, it falls into the trap that so many modern indie films do: it’s a mainstream, big studio work in all but budget, with all of the grit and grime of the best of its kind absorbed and assimilated into a neat and tidy system.
Directed by Debra GranikUnited States | 2010
Winter’s Bone capitalizes on the dilapidation of its locales and the rich, allusive history behind them, evoking a mythological antiquity. Indeed, the Jungian/Campbellian Odyssey link nearly writes itself. Each house that Ree visits is guarded by a kind of gatekeeper, always the females, protecting the potential answer to the mysteries within. Each location gets more frightening; the first is rather benign, but the second finds Ree meeting her uncle, Teardrop (an inscrutable John Hawkes who earns his Oscar nom in a magnificently ambiguous role), who violently lashes out when she pleads with him to help her, even though he relents and later becomes her guardian angel.
Directed by Debra GranikUnited States | 2010
To be sure, Winter’s Bone, by virtue of its bleak subject matter, chilly landscape shots and spare bluegrass soundtrack, continues a long line of grim Americana that has been in vogue in American independent quarters for a while now (Frozen River, Snow Angels, etc.). As a result, I approached this film with a smidgen of skepticism, ready to be somewhat irritated by a melodramatically sustained air of despair and grief. But while Granik’s film is indeed relentlessly dark and unforgiving, it manages this in an utterly convincing manner, forging a deep-seated sense of oppression and desperation that is inseparable from both the locale and the troubling scenario.
Directed by BanksyUnited States, United Kingdom | 2010
There are a lot of great, deep questions posed by Exit Through the Gift Shop, the biggest being, “Is this all a hoax?” Banksy and Mr. Brainwash are real people, but this movie is so perfectly weird in all the right places that one can feel an unseen hand pulling the levers. Guetta is referred to in the past tense a lot, and most of the interview footage we see of him is archival—I don’t know if there’s any from the Mr. Brainwash period; there’s a lot of footage of Guetta being filmed in his gallery and putting up art, which begs the question, “Who is filming Guetta?” Did he hire someone to do this? Did Banksy? If so, does that imply that Banksy had intended to turn the rise and fall of Mr. Brainwash into a movie in the first place?
Directed by Alan J. PakulaUnited States | 1971
The whole private detective, investigation procedural element, for instance, consists of Klute following paper thin leads that don’t logically allow for any real progress in solving the mystery. Even the dénouement, where Bree is confronted by her stalker, lacks all sense of suspenseful drama, primarily because you see the revelation coming a mile away, and partly because there is really no tension between them. Although, even here, Fonda should be especially lauded for her performance, as the three-minute long take in close-up of her face during the playback of the tapes is riveting, but only from a character, rather than a dramatic, standpoint.
Directed by Peter JacksonUnited States, United Kingdom, New Zealand | 2009
It would seem that somewhere along the way Jackson forgot how to communicate with audiences and is now quite convinced that if he could just spend enough money and just augment an image enough digitally he might, just might, actually manage to establish some sort of repartee with the people in the cinema. Like his King Kong – which I’ll admit right now is one of the single most unpleasant viewing experiences I’ve ever had, a film shaped by an uncanny ability by the director to pervert every single positive of the original and create something both inexorably tedious and unconvincing – this film is just a chore from start to finish.
Directed by Stan BrakhageUnited States | 1967, 1978
By sheer necessity you can only remember Brakhage’s films by way of fleeting moments and images, more like memories of fading dreams than series of connected events. For a director so concerned with vision, it seems apropos that Brakhage would focus on lights so much, and lights indeed serve as another motif. They appear in a variety of ways; sometimes they are distant colored dots on the horizon, either originating from building windows, streetlamps, or other unknown sources. In one moment we get a close-up of an orange glowing light bulb that is superimposed with smaller lights that lead us into the next section, which includes cruising across a bridge with the sky bathed in red and buildings standing like hulking shadow monsters ahead.
Directed by Derek CianfranceUnited States | 2010
Cianfrance’s view here is a decidedly contemporary one, sensitive to the transient pleasures and euphoric thrills of falling in love but also fixed in a very specific context where the idea of lifelong happiness in a relationship has become impoverished in the face of widespread divorce. Blue Valentine dissects this harsh reality by centering in on a young married couple who are at the brink of marital collapse, staring into the abyss of a single life, but still grasping onto traces of an idyllic past. Limited in its scope, it’s nonetheless a powerful, brutal, unsentimental film, but one not without a poignant realization of a kind of historical optimism, the ability to turn to memory as a way of coping with a dismal future.
Directed by Anton CorbijnUnited States | 2010
Characters and settings are introduced like musical themes; Corbijn uses subtle repetitions to give them weight and to give the viewer the sense that the story is going somewhere even when it isn’t so obvious… If you look for them, the film is dominated by repetitions, most slightly reconfigured with each iteration. It lends a hallucinatory quality to events which may seem rather ordinary given the extraordinariness that films usually attach to spy intrigues.
Directed by Mark RobsonUnited States | 1943
As much as the film stumbles in its first act, it truly reaches a dark, dramatic, psychologically terrifying boiling point here as Merriam waits patiently in his room for Stone to make his move. Typically, the scariest moments in Lewton are reserved for characters’ walks, where the outstretching shadows seem to contain the lurking evil. But here it’s the claustrophobic stasis of Merriam that triggers some of the most sweat-drenched tension in all of Lewton.
Directed by Lee UnkrichUnited States | 2010
If the film falls short of its predecessors it’s that this diversity can frequently come off as a lack of focus, rather than as an organic mixture. Unusual for a Pixar film, Toy Story 3 actually takes some time to establish its primary conflict. The opening one appears almost as a reprise of the second film, with the theme of toys lamenting their owners growing up. The debate between Woody and the other toys never seems to feel as natural as the ones in the first two films, and the action-centric second and third acts seem to forsake character for more superficial entertainment.
Directed by Steven SeagalUnited States | 1994
Like Tommy Wisseau’s The Room, Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce or John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears, Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground exists in a realm separate and distinct from bad or good. It’s just funny. “So bad it’s good” funny. The film ushered in the steep decline in Seagal’s credibility even if he managed a few more films that at least were watchable before descending to the lowest depths of action movie hell where he’s resided for about a decade now. This is the end.
Directed by Terrence MalickUnited States, United Kingdom | 2005
The visuals, while still incredibly strong, can’t quite match the sheer beauty of Days of Heaven, the elegiac tone of Badlands or the terrifying power of The Thin Red Line, and its best moments seem far too fleeting and fragmentary (a criticism that might fit the entire film, actually). The length proves more of a detriment than a strength as it forces Malick into repetitions that add nothing to the film; I lost count of how many scenes we have with Smith and Pocahontas frolicking and flirting in nature.
Directed by Woody AllenUnited States | 1979
The visuals aren’t just for superficial prettiness, though, as there’s also a maturity and sophistication to the language. There’s a motif of characters talking to others off-screen, perhaps a visual metaphor for the lack of connection. There’s a motif of characters walking off-screen leaving empty spaces, perhaps a visual metaphor for the emptiness in the characters’ own lives. There’s also a nuanced touch to the editing. Manhattan is such a fluid film, with scenes practically flowing into scenes. Yet, sometimes, the scenic juxtapositions are abrupt and dramatically potent.
Directed by Charlie ChaplinUnited States | 1928
This is one film where Chaplin doesn’t miss a gag. Every prop, every sequence, every person seems perfectly placed and shaped to extract the maximum amount of comedy out of the story. Of course within the film the Tramp can only be funny when he is unaware that people are laughing and so as he learns of his real role within the circus, as the main attraction, his star fades. The final shot is filled with poignancy as the circus rides away and the Tramp decides, much like his erstwhile canine TV pal The Littlest Hobo, that he should just move on elsewhere.
Directed by Alister GriersonAustralia, United States | 2010
Characters also engage in a kind of verbal melodrama that suggests “action moments”, as if they are participating in a trailer for a film rather than a film itself. Elsewhere, nonstop dramatic music is supposed to substitute for pathos. When will modern filmmakers learn that music is a tool of punctuation, contrast, to accompany or even multiply the meaning of images, and not the show itself? Sanctum might be 15% better if you deleted 90% of its excess score. It still wouldn’t be good, but perhaps it might achieve something like a mood.
Directed by Ridley ScottUnited States, United Kingdom | 2010
For most, the comparisons would end there, and I certainly won’t compare the depth, humanity and poignancy, nor the dramatic form or characterizations of Shakespeare to Robin Hood. These relative failings have largely been the focus of the negative reviews leveled at it, frequently concluding that this is nothing but yet another empty-headed epic. Yet I think these criticisms have missed the heart of the film, which lies in its pristine, neo-classical craftsmanship.
Directed by George A. RomeroUnited States, Canada | 2009
The film hardly goes a few minutes before a gun battle erupts and a random troupe of zombies have their brains splattered all over the place. The problem is that due to the exceedingly poor special effects and the overexposure to such occurrences, the violence becomes tedious almost as soon as it begins. It doesn’t help matters that, lacking any convincing or useful characters, it’s impossible to be bothered when one of the living succumb to the dead either. As an exercise in violence Survival of the Dead succeeds in the basest conceivable manner and is, at all times, utterly bereft of even the vaguest sense of suspense or intrigue.
Directed by Darren AronofskyUnited States | 2010
There’s simply too much wrong with Black Swan to offer it much leeway. Were it not for the presence of recognisable names the film itself holds all the intrigue and surprise of a generic, direct-to-DVD title. That’s surely the biggest surprise of all; that where Aronofsky’s shortcomings and misjudgments usually draw questions of its critics this time around the result is simply too generic to merit examination. The notion of tortured artists and of actors becoming trapped within the machinations of their performance are well worn and there’s still plenty of potential for intrigue in that fatalistic viewpoint but Aronofsky’s vision of malevolent reflections, suspicious rashes and recurring cuticle damage hardly inspire confidence. For the particularly squeamish perhaps one or two scenes might ask them to avert their eyes but as a literalisation of an artist’s self-destructive pursuit for perfection it’s all sadly ho-hum.
Directed by Louie PsihoyosUnited States | 2009
As propaganda, however, it’s riveting and eye opening, though it will likely provoke thinking viewers to wonder just how much of what’s stated is true, how much is exaggerated, how much is misleading and how much is downright false. One would certainly question, for instance, what right the U.S. would have to demand that the Japanese stop killing dolphins when we kill cows and chickens daily. Using an unfalsifiable argument like the intelligence, consciousness and spirituality of dolphins doesn’t seem enough to declare their massacre immoral.
Directed by Dean BeBlois, Chris SandersUnited States | 2010
Aiding the visuals is a truly cinematographic sensibility guided by the great DP Roger Deakins who was a consultant on the film. Deakins’ versatility is all over the lighting schemes of the film, effortlessly gliding from the luminous glows of fire in the night scenes to the eerie, low contrast fog and greenery of the forest. Even the interiors are given an attention to photographic detail in regards to candle lit shadow movement. If Deakins lends the film a visual touch, then John Powell’s phenomenal score helps to galvanize the film from beginning to end. The main triumphant theme soars to glorious heights in the first flying scene and the last battle.
Directed by Joel CoenUnited States | 1991
…beyond playful suggestions sprinkled here and there, it’s difficult for this writer to discern any larger and consistent criticism of fascism, or Hollywood, in a film whose concerns are supremely personal, even intra-personal. After all, few things are more personal than the creative process itself and one’s conception of reality. “The life of the mind,” specifically Barton’s mind and, perhaps to a greater extent, that of Charlie’s is what interests the Coens most.
Directed by Martin ScorseseUnited States | 2010
Shutter Island is full of directorial touches that only a wily veteran like Scorsese could pull off so effortlessly: his modulation between low contrast, desaturated frames and high contrast, highly saturated frames, for instance, or those visceral tracking shots that haven’t lost their power since his early films. Even if his average-shot-length has plummeted, his editing still maintains a muscular rhythm that most modern directors could only dream of maintaining.
Directed by Matt ReevesUnited States, United Kingdom | 2010
With a somewhat troubling dependence on sinister music, awkward tension-building exercises and exceedingly poorly realised special effects, the film tries to pull the audience in rather than letting them naturally sink into proceedings. It’s really only when we get past the event that opened the film that everything settles down and really reflects the more successful tone the Swedish film managed from its very first frame.
Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan CoenUnited States, United Kingdom, France | 2009
Given the film’s thematic complexity, it seems almost trivial to return to the more plebeian forms of criticism, but Roger Deakins’ dreamlike, almost surreal cinematography deserves it. It brilliantly contrasts the comic book-like colors and geometry of suburbia in wide lenses and deep focus with the hazier colors and angles of Larry’s subjectivity and dreams in long lenses and shallow focus. This echoes the theme of Larry being cut off from objective reality by his distorted view of his life.
Directed by Joel CoenUnited States, United Kingdom | 2001
Sometimes it seems the Coens have Coenized their films as an afterthought, the usual attention paid to ennui, the sudden violence, the imperceptible shifts between comedy and grimness calling attention to themselves and creating distances, for better or worse. This film perhaps more than any other seamlessly integrates their wonted stylistics with narrative.
Directed by Christopher NolanUnited States, United Kingdom | 2008
I can’t recall another film with so much conflict. Every scene. Either it’s resolved then and there, left unresolved, comes back later on or it’s a part of some overall arc of conflict. People figuratively eat one another. The Joker, despite his manifestly creepy circumlocution, further intensifies this notion. Married to the conflict are a number of moral dilemmas, most being obvious set-pieces with some more methodically folded into the narrative. The great dilemma at the heart of the film recalls the roots of Western philosophy: what is the good life? and how to achieve it? There are a lot of answers thrown up like molotov cocktails at the question.
Directed by Joel CoenUnited States | 2007
The Coens too have always been fascinated by the almost ritualistic act of doing things in order to affect outcomes. No Country is almost leisurely in how it goes about focusing on the mere “doing” of things, like Moss figuring out how to hide the money satchel in a rundown hotel air vent. This rhythmic patience is echoed in the editing, which hangs on static or slowly changing shots longer than the norm, paradoxically ramping up the tension to extreme degrees without ever uttering a word.
Directed by Joel CoenUnited States, United Kingdom | 1998
This film makes a hero out of the lovable fuck-up in your life, digging change out of the sofas and car seats of reality until college loans inch him/her toward grown-up jobs. I have and continue to keep a stern rule for young bachelors, notably those living on the cheap: No Lebowski or Bukowski until you’re 40 or rich.
Directed by John CarpenterUnited States | 1976
It would be easy to laud Carpenter for his restraint. Everything that follows the initial silent barrage of bullets that necessitates freeing Wells and Wilson feels like a countdown. Clearly Carpenter, even this young in his career, is more concerned with a motif of doom than a visceral slug-out with his audience. You can also see a very tidy director going through the motions for the first time. The gang’s removal of their dead, more than just a clever script ploy, affords Carpenter greater shot continuity as he’s never forced to take his camera out of the station.
Directed by Joel CoenUnited States | 1990
It’s perhaps an exaggeration but who could resist playing up the crookedness of a world where alcohol was illegal? Prohibition-era America made many of its citizens criminals purely for indulging in some tipple and handed both business and legitimacy to criminal empires. This is the world of Miller’s Crossing where the political and the criminal are, in something of an open secret, one and the same.
Directed by Joel CoenUnited States | 1984
It’s that PI who introduces us to the world of Blood Simple in that opening monologue; a curious statement about the inescapability of chance and of Communist Russia where, at least in theory, a system is in place that ensures people must pull for one another. This is not Russia he goes on to assure us… this is Texas. Every man must fend for himself.
Directed by Gary ShermanUnited States | 1990
A great deal of the film will revolve around Lisa’s playing-hard-to-get telephone conversations with Richard, the handsome, beguiling killer. Of course, Richard wants to know who’s calling him at all hours and disguising her voice so he’s always trying to get information out of her. The astute teenager resists, but eventually she has the idea of pretending to be her mom—if mom gets laid, then maybe she’ll ease up and Lisa can go out on a date herself—but this way she gives away her mom’s identity and the shit hits the fan with about ten minutes left.
Directed by Sylvester StalloneUnited States | 2010
…when it comes to mass destruction the film mostly ticks the appropriate boxes, even deriving some good comic effect as Hale Caesar finally unleashes his pet automatic-shotgun, his only notable character trait. As far as body counts go The Expendables surely must rank among the elites. In terms of overall quality it might not match up to the insane fun of Commando or the aesthetic aplomb of Hard Boiled but it’s certainly trying to keep pace as lives are erased left, right and centre.
Directed by Newt ArnoldUnited States | 1988
…the disconnect between the film’s major storyline and the supposed drama that fuels it is more noticeable to me here than in many other films. I should add that if the lack of an anti-communist narrative thread helps Bloodsport seem a little fresher than some of its temporal peers than the soundtrack definitely places it staunchly in the 1980s. Oh yes, the film is full of rocking songs about succeeding in the face of adversity with awkward widdley guitar solos placed between the second and third verse (I suspect that’s where they go, right?).
Directed by Jacques TourneurUnited States | 1943
The Leopard Man was the last of the brief—but fruitful, innovative and highly influential—collaboration of producer/auteur Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. It was preceded by the much more heralded Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, and was, in fact, the only film of the trio to receive negative-to-lukewarm criticism. In retrospect, the film is more challenging and innovative than either of its predecessors; it has an eye that looks both backward to Fritz Lang’s supreme psychological suspense/thriller noir about a serial killer, M, as well as ahead to the radical and inventive narratives of Alfred Hitchcock. If The Leopard Man lacks the visceral impact of M, and the cinematic refinement of Hitchcock, it’s still an undeniable diamond in the rough.
Directed by John G. AvildsenUnited States | 1976
At times diving headlong into self-deprecation, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa comes across as a genuine, struggling artist. He lost his way, his craft, somewhere in the mix and he knows there’s something terribly wrong with the way things have worked out, but he’s never given up even as the distractions in life overshadowed the real goal, the boxing. Though physically stocky and muscular Stallone’s mumbling, sheepish demeanour downplays his impressive frame just as Chaplin’s Tramp hid his physical dexterity behind apparent clumsiness. He’s built for boxing. It’s just the rest of life that causes him trouble.
Directed by Nicholas RayUnited States | 1950
Only an actor with the talent, charisma, authenticity and magnetism of Humphrey Bogart could play a character by the name of Dix Steele with the kind of conviction that slowly morphs our inevitable giggles to terror and sadness. It goes without saying that Bogey is an undisputed cinematic legend, but what continues to strike me about his work is the raw humanism that he displays. There’s a darkness and danger that seems to permeate his being in every role. That razor’s edge tone especially seems to stand out in an era of Hollywood’s Golden Age that had a penchant for stock, sympathetic, archetypal characters and stories that either feigned tragedy or provided light, comic escapism. Bogart is always a shot of existential angst into an era that seemed to be going through a kind of dramatic Enlightenment.
Directed by Neil LaButeUnited States | 2006
It’s difficult to pinpoint quite what’s so wrong here although obviously familiarity with an original always makes it a challenge to see the new version fresh. Still, the matriarchal, Luddite colony found here just doesn’t gel like the quaint, uneasy but still vaguely normal town of its predecessor. The film is also dogged by pointless and invariably trite presaging of events, most notably an intro that sees Cage witness a horrific road accident only to find out later that no bodies were recovered and the car wasn’t even registered. Visions of that accident haunt his sleeping and waking hours and, of course, bees start to appear there too.
Directed by Noah BaumbachUnited States | 1995
The film’s lack of music in its main sections emphasizes this tonal amorphousness, and their dryness has the paradoxical effect of making the film seem both more authentic and yet more affected. One can’t help but feel that the dialogue frequently seems very written—almost calling attention to itself in its unnaturalness. Yet, as Josh Hamilton once said in an interview (paraphrased): “When I read the script I thought, ‘Yes! This is how my friends and I talk’, but it was only in retrospect I realized I merely wished we were that witty.” But the film has an emotional realness that overcomes the overly-self conscious script, which is still funny and likable in its own right.
Directed by Christopher NolanUnited States, United Kingdom | 2010
Here, [Nolan] giddily sets events in motion, spinning yarns of oneiric fancy on top of ostensibly real heist tropes, leaving action frozen, slowing it to a snail’s pace, walking it underneath the immediate demands of an action plot like gears interlocked, but of differing size, attuned to unequal oscillations. As a result, Inception is a rare screen epic that aims to thrill for two-plus hours and agitate for weeks to follow. It can be frustratingly ponderous and uncinematic, but for once a film requires more of its audience than bringing their eyes, ears and social baggage into the theater. One may become lost in its labyrinthine artifice, or in its sheer spectacle, but perhaps that’s the point. The film itself warns us early and often to pay attention.
Directed by Paul GreengrassUnited States, Spain, France, United Kingdom | 2010
One thing that sets Greengrass apart from his fast-cutting, shaky cam contemporaries is his ability to merge the realism of the setting with the heightened, manipulative drama of a classic Hollywood film. Greengrass’ filming methods are indicative of this. He frequently sets up entire scenes, merely sketching the outline of what has to happen, but letting his actors improvise from there. The fact that he’s using real military men as opposed to professional actors (besides Damon, of course) adds to the sense of dramatic realism.
Directed by Mike NicholsUnited States | 1967
The problem with all this is that if The Graduate does capture the zeitgeist of ’60s America, it is a romanticised zeitgeist, one that is a world away from the bristling anger and genuine unrest of Vietnam and the marches of the Civil Rights Movement. The social fallout is handled, at best, abstractly in Ben’s general disaffection, but even the film itself seems somewhat unconvinced by its own thesis. The use of music from Simon and Garfunkel plays prominently into this.
Directed by Wes CravenUnited States | 1972
What to make of this film? On the one hand it’s haphazard, irresponsible and vile while on the other it’s all of these things that cement this as a leading example of a filmmaking ideology that was key in the 1970s. I know it’s terribly wrong and yet I also know it’s absolutely fascinating. Low budget and aimed firmly at the gut, the film is an obvious remaking of The Virgin Spring, but any element of subtlety and restraint Bergman might have used is violently stripped away here (and The Virgin Spring isn’t very subtle to begin with).
Directed by John McNaughtonUnited States | 1986
McNaughton doesn’t indulge in the emotional tropes of a dramatic score or confessional narration or dialogue, spoken or visual, that might convey psychological scrutiny. At the same time, McNaughton plays with these conventions, and the outcomes of his verisimilitudes are usually comic, not tragic. This approach is well-served by a screenplay that proffers two illiterate killers, one of whom, Otis, is not only stupid, but full of other disgusting predilections.
Directed by James MarshUnited Kingdom, United States | 1999
The idea of legitimising re-enactment twins with another interesting question this film raises: the idea of a newspaper of record. The newspaper from which the stories derive is noted as being the paper of record for the area but, of course, verification is quite difficult given the time that’s gone by. The paper’s credentials are never really called into question and this is an obstacle that all historians must grapple with; just who is recording history and what perspective did they knowingly or unknowingly bring to the task? Of course the seeming preponderance on the bizarre in Black River Falls is no doubt as much a result of condensing nine or so years of news into 76 minutes as anything else.
Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan CoenUnited States, United Kingdom, France | 2009
One possible interpretation among many is to conceive of A Serious Man as the Coen brothers answer to their critics, who for years have accused their films of nihilism or worse. The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink in particular are largely seen as something like apocalyptic sketches: the former portraying modern man after the idealism of the 60’s has all but disappeared and the latter suggesting that man is utterly corrupt and salvation is unattainable. The Coens have at last crafted a black comedy that both embraces and shuns their origins, while complicating them.
Directed by Robert BentonUnited States | 1979
On the surface Kramer vs. Kramer, as the title implies, is a dramatization of a narrative we are all too familiar with in America; namely the tragic compromises that follow from divorce, particularly when a young child enters the calculus of what is ultimately a vicious legal battle. But more than that, at bottom, this film is about a man learning to be a father; to meet his encumbered obligation and live for something outside of himself.
Directed by Antoine FuquaUnited States | 2009
Also working in this film’s favor is the relentlessly soul-crushing atmosphere. Instead of simply pouring on the testosterone and lighting it up with a contemporary soundtrack and leaving it at that, Fuqua chose to imbue even the more mundane, expository scenes with a sense of existential dread. All the vicissitudes of being a cop on the beat are rendered small and large, from respecting precinct boundaries to coping with criticism from the brass about media scrutiny, from dodging pedestrian insults to gunfire.
Directed by Sidney LumetUnited States | 1960
If laudable for nothing else, this film simply has to be praised for the risks it takes with theme and visual motif. Val is an obvious accumulation of racist prejudices and propaganda. His skin (a snakeskin jacket) is different from everyone else in town. He exudes sexuality, telling us his body temperature is a few degrees above normal. The words ‘beautiful’ and ‘handsome’ are hurled at Val like racial epithets.
Directed by Tony StoneUnited States | 2007
In an ominous and symbolic act the warriors set fire to the makeshift church and Stone makes sure to give us a lasting image of the cross being eaten by flame. This is a triumphant moment for the pair, but it also signals a change. Shortly afterward Orn is captured by a native tribe, whom the Norsemen refer to as Skaeling, leaving Volnard to continue the trek alone.