Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912-2007

Wow, I hope Godard and Resnais are taking it easy today. Unfortunately, I've seen even fewer Antonioni films than I have Bergman films (3 - L'Avventura, Blow-Up, and The Passenger, plus his section from Eros). Antonioni's style and subject matter is even more forbiddingly high modernist, and more of its time, when the old orders of Europe finally crumbled under the weight of the modern age. To be perfectly honest, I can't say that I 'get' L'Avventura or Blow-Up, although that might just be because Antonioni's style and message have so permeated the art-movie that they just seem like part of the landscape now. The Passenger, on the other hand, I love because it feels simultaneously more personal and more playful than the previous two, less mired in what Pauline Kael called 'come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe parties'. But I need to revisit as many of these movies as I can. All this viewing makes me wish I was out of work right now so that I could have more free time.

Monday, July 30, 2007

My Top Fifteen Simpsons Episodes

From the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous, my near-total enjoyment of The Simpsons Movie made me want to go back and do a little list-making, which was tough, considering there are now 400 episodes to choose from. The average Simpsons episode is smart, funny, and gently subversive; the best episodes are all of those, and warm and full of heart as well (for the most part).

In order in which they aired:

"Homer's Triple Bypass" (1992) Homer's mortality has never been played for such drama or realistic comedy as this episode, where he's saved by Dr. Nick Riviera and an assist from Lisa.

"Marge vs. the Monorail" (1993) This Conan O'Brien-inspired episode has a ludicrous premise, but it works thanks to Phil Hartman's Lyle Lanley and one of the best musical moments of the series.

"Cape Feare" (1993) This is the best Sideshow Bob episode, and one of the best movie parodies at the same time.

"Homer the Great" (1995) The Stonecutters episode, and a cutting satire of 'secret societies' as nothing more than frattish drinking clubs.

"Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One)" (1995) The biggest Simpsons event ever was this cliffhanger with genuine drama stemming from Mr. Burns' most diabolical plot ever.

"Treehouse of Horror VI" (1995) The three episodes here - "Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores", "Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace" and "Homer^3" - are the best all-around package of Treehouse of Horror shorts, climaxing with a CGI Homer wandering down a normal human street.

"Mother Simpson" (1995) The sage of Mona Simpson, Homer's mother, was told as a story of love and loss with one of the show's most bittersweet endings.

"A Fish Called Selma" (1996) Troy McClure shines as a fish fetishist who romances Selma to rehabilitate his career, including the musical version of "Planet of the Apes".

"22 Short Films about Springfield" (1996) Following on the heels of Pulp Fiction and its ilk, a deconstruction with some of the best character bits from the show's supporting cast.

"You Only Move Twice" (1996) Homer sacrifices the best job he could ever have (working for supergenius Hank Scorpio) in order to bring his family happiness.

"In Marge We Trust" (1997) Two words: Mr. Sparkle.

"Homer's Enemy" (1997) A great mid-series auto-critique of the series, with the hapless Frank Grimes pointing out all of Homer's flaws.

"The Secret War of Lisa Simpson" (1997) The best depiction of the relationship between siblings Bart and Lisa, as the two kids are sent to military school.

"Miracle on Evergreen Terrace" (1997) The show's best Christmas episode, with the family perpetrating a fraud on the entire town of Springfield.

"Alone Again Natura-Diddily" (2000) The show kills off Maude Flanders and her husband copes.

Even though the last episode on this list is seven years old, I'm not one of those rabid haters who insists that the show has been worthless for years; it's had its ups and downs, and the death of Maude Flanders was probably the last boat-rocking that the show will ever see, but the show is still in the upper ranks of anything on television, and substantially better than shows like The Family Guy.

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

Sad news of the death of one of the great filmmakers today. I'll always think of Bergman, along with Kurosawa and Fellini, as one of the big three of the foreign/arthouse period of cinema history - for many people, the definition of a foreign film was two people sitting in a room talking about the mysteries of existence and not looking at each other. For example, a clip: http://youtube.com/watch?v=h2f0nfrgaK4

I regret to say that I have only seen seven of his 60+ films, a shortcoming I will do my best to fix. Those seven are: Fanny and Alexander, Cries and Whispers, Persona, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, and The Virgin Spring. In thinking about these films, the associations that come to mind are of an educated, sensitive man reckoning with the blind chaos of the universe and trying to make sense of it all; sometimes, with bitterness, sometimes with warmth, but always with passion and intelligence. Also, those performances, true down to the bone, and that cinematography, thanks to Sven Nykvist - those brilliant contrasts, light shining down to expose the soul of the individual.

I also notice that, assuming it's still open, the New Beverly is showing The Virgin Spring and Wild Strawberries this Wednesday and Thursday here in Los Angeles.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

"The Littlest People" on Discovery Health

I was watching this documentary program on cable while folding laundry, it's about a particular disorder - primordial dwarfism - that results in children that are smaller and frailer than other types of dwarfs, and who typically don't live beyond the age of 30. It's interesting enough hearing stories about growing up different from other kids and how adults with the disorder work to try to boost the self-esteem of young primordial dwarf children.

Then they get to a profile of Danny, the guy in the picture above, and the interviewer talks about how he got to go to homecoming and his romantic life, and then she asks, "How long would you like to live?" And I was staggered at the insensitivity and condescension inherent in that question. How long do you want to live, interview lady? Of course, the guy answers, "Sixty or seventy" because what else is he going to say? "I hope to make it to forty but that's it, because my life is a worthless parody of normalcy"?

And this was in the final cut of the thing. Jeez.

Highest-grossing horror movies of all time - by special request

You can tell just from the name of this blog that I'm a big horror movie fan, which is why I've been trying to defend certain titles and filmmakers against mainstream disdain - even though horror is almost by definition an outsider phenomenon, beyond the pale of what a mainstream audience typically wants out of a movie. But of course there are exceptions. This is a list of the highest-grossing horror movies of all time, adjusted for inflation:

1. Jaws
2. The Exorcist
3. The Sixth Sense
4. Psycho
5. Gremlins
6. Jaws 2
7. House of Wax (1953)
8. The Amityville Horror (1979)
9. Alien
10. The Silence of the Lambs
11. Hannibal
12. What Lies Beneath
13. The Omen (1976)
14. The Blair Witch Project
15. Interview with the Vampire
16. Poltergeist
17. Scream
18. Seven
19. The Ring
20. Scream 2
(revised - 21. Halloween
22. Bram Stoker's Dracula
23. Sleepy Hollow)

These rankings are adapted from a list off of Hollywood.com, which for some reason included action/horror hybrids like The Mummy(1999) and Van Helsing, but not Gremlins or the two Hannibal Lecter movies, which I feel are a better fit. But this kind of genre slipperiness is to be expected, because in order for a horror movie to make a lot of money, it probably has to be more than just scary (half of these movies have happy endings), and so at the top of the list are dramas like The Sixth Sense and adventure movies like Jaws. I could have also included Jurassic Park or Signs or hell, Fatal Attraction, but they didn't feel right. Also, I think the Hollywood.com list is incomplete - I'm pretty sure that Psycho, adjusted for inflation, should show up here, as well as the likes of Rosemary's Baby, The Birds, or even the original Universal Dracula or Frankenstein.

I've been wanting to write up a list of what I think are the 50 best horror movies of all time and make it a running series on this blog (I need to see some more Asian horror classics before I feel right in doing that) but for now I'll say that nine of these movies would definitely be on that list - Jaws, Exorcist, Gremlins, Alien, Blair Witch, Seven, Halloween, Silence of the Lambs, and The Ring.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Stroszek (1977)

There are two basic types of Werner Herzog characters: the megalomaniacs who try to bend nature to their wills and fail (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Timothy Treadwell) and the innocents who find themselves coping with a strange and chaotic universe (Kaspar Hauser, Juliane Sturze, Dieter Dengler). Bruno Stroszek is one of the latter, as Herzog transplants Bruno S., Kaspar Hauser from Every Man for Himself and God Against All, out of the 19th century into contemporary Germany. Just as Bruno had played Kaspar as a confused innocent stuck in a bizarre world he never made, so now are the contrasts even higher: Stroszek (like Bruno S. himself) has been institutionalized for most of his life and has only rudimentary adult skills; when confronted by two thugs who force themselves into his grungy apartment, his response is total submission, like a dog.

After realizing how incapable he is of dealing with this existence, he tries, with a pair of friends - a prostitute and an old guy - to build a new life in Wisconsin. Here, the expression about not being able to get away from yourself comes firmly into play, as Eva the prostitute goes back to doing tricks for extra cash, and Stroszek has no idea how to make enough money to pay for his mobile home or color TV. All of this is played out not in clammy, decrepit West Germany, but in a land that promises a brighter future for anyone, yet is full of its own share of weirdness. After dealing with an unctuous banker and a jabberjaw auctioneer, Stroszek makes his final stand against the cold rationality of the world in an arcade, where you can make a rabbit ride a tiny firetruck or a chicken dance by plugging in a few cents.

The experience of watching a film like this is essentially heartbreaking, and illustrative of the whole scope of human life, from the unstoppable survival instincts of the tiny babies Stroszek views in the premature ward of the hospital, to the late-in-life rebelliousness of Mr. Scheitz, who holds up a barbershop with a shotgun out of disgust at the failures of the system, and is promptly arrested across the street buying groceries.

Through all of this, Bruno S. watches and tries to cope, until he can take it no longer and has one of those wonderful movie flameouts that we only really saw in the '70s. Everything that felt distanced in Herzog's Kaspar Hauser - the pastoral tone, the historical setting - is gone here, and the movie slaps you around with the essential tragedy of life.

I also notice from IMDB that this movie was apparently released on my birthday in 1977, which is funny.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Wow, who'd have thought that we'd have a summer where Len Wiseman would be showing Michael Bay how to direct an action movie?

I'm mostly surprised at how enjoyable this was because of how little interest I had in this movie to begin with - a sequel a dozen years after the last movie is a dubious place to start, and the only other Len Wiseman movie I've ever seen, Underworld, is dreary and tedious. And on top, the trailer, with fervent Michael Bay-isms like American flags unfolding in slow-motion and absurdly impossible stunts, made this look like crud.

But Wiseman stepped up and delivered the most entertaining action movie of this summer (presumably until next week, when The Bourne Ultimatum comes out). Wiseman's action sequences are clean and simple, suspenseful and exciting, as opposed to the meaningless chaos of Transformers or the overblown spectacle of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. This is how you do it, Bay and Verbinski: you don't have to assault the audience with constantly frenetic imagery. You don't have to attempt to bloat your movie with too many storylines, characters, and visual metaphors. You just need to provide a simple story, some good guys and bad guys, some stakes, some momentum, and some carefully choreographed sequences.

Of course, I don't wat to give the impression that this is some minor masterpiece of action filmmaking - it's a bigger, more expansive version of the original Die Hard with the Eastern Seaboard substituting for Nakatomi Tower and Mary Elizabeth Winstead filling in for Bonnie Bedelia, and lacking that movie's perfect screenplay, originality, and bad guy (Timothy Olyphant is no Alan Rickman). But as summer tentpoles go, you could do a lot worse.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sunshine (2007)

I never again want to hear the line "He's insane! He's going to destroy the mission!" in a movie that intends to be taken seriously.

Danny Boyle bugs me. He makes movies about things that I generally like - greedy people killing each other (Shallow Grave), isolated survivalists (The Beach), cataclysmic zombie attacks (28 Days Later), featuring strong actors, music, and cinematography - then mucks them up with shallow thematic development, dumb plot contrivances, and dreadful third acts. Sunshine is more of the same, returning to his common theme of small groups of isolated people inevitably self-destructing. It starts well, with a crew of eight scientists and astronauts on a mission to 'reignite the sun' (whatever that means). Then they decide to check out the seemingly abandoned remains of the first ship to attempt this mission.

Of course, the movie reveals itself as boneheaded as soon as one sleepy astronaut explains to everyone that the reason alarms are going off is because when calculating their complex course correction to head to the other ship, he forgot to program in an adjustment to the ship's heat shields - and this poor, overworked dude becomes responsible for (spoilers!) pretty much everyone's deaths, in the first of many contrivances that shows that the filmmakers don't have much concept about how a real space mission would work. Brian DePalma's Mission to Mars is a dumb movie in a lot of ways, but one aspect it got right were the nuts and bolts of realistic space travel and how missions work - with intricate planning, checking, double-checking, and redundant cross-checking to make sure that something important - like the heat shields, on a misson to the Sun - are pointed the right direction.

Of course, that's a fairly minor point by the end of the movie, when it turns into the sequel to Event Horizon and a Kentucky Fried Madman is chasing the crew through the ship and stabbing everyone. There's some strong imagery and the movie is sort of entertaining, in a dumb, pulpy way, but Boyle is fooling himself if he thinks he's following in the tradition of Kubrick or Tarkovsky.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Everybody's doing it

Of course I hate to be part of a major corporation's marketing campaign, but hey...it's the Simpsons.

I just wish there was an option for a button-down shirt.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Torture movies

It's been very frustrating to me for the last few months to attempt to sustain a dialogue with various internet folk about the current torture subgenre of horror movies, primarily because critics of these films have insisted on simplistic knee-jerk reactions - if they've even seen the films under discussion.

I refuse to submit to the name 'torture porn' because it's meant to be purely derogatory; but it also points out what it is about these movies that make critics so very uncomfortable - horror and porn are audiovisual genres that deal explicitly with the human body; porn in a fantasy context, horror in a nightmare context, and representations of the human body in these extreme circumstances make people deeply uncomfortable, as they have for over thirty years now. This is a continuation of the same debate that flourished in the 1970s over Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, and the same lazy arguments are in play which seek to sweep all torture movies into the same bag, regardless of individual merit.

My frustrations have stemmed primarily from the insistence from some that torture movies like Hostel, the Saw movies, or the new Captivity are not just bad movies, but deeply objectionable; one critic for a high-profile publication has made it clear that he deems these movies so horrendous that anyone who expresses any opinion other than total revulsion is beyond the pale of redemption and unworthy of human contact. (Of course, this same critic is also happy to needle those who disagree with constant reminders of his moral superiority and persistent gloating in a babyish, intellectually lazy and dishonest manner.) I don't give a rat's ass if you like or dislike a movie, but I demand basic respect for my opinions and analysis, and insist that a critic see a movie before repetitively slamming it and gloating over it's fate - that's basic.

While I'm a big fan of horror movies, I would never say that every movie in this subgenre is good or worthy of respect; Darren Bousman's Saw sequels have been grim wallows in explicit gore justified by juvenile attempts at moralizing; Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a standard slasher movie juiced up by all the aestheticization that a Michael Bay production could muster; and Turistas went through the motions, clearly uninterested in its own premise. However, as in every genre of movies, there are standouts, and so it is with Eli Roth's Hostel and Hostel Part II, and Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects. It's easier for critics to brush an entire class of movies into the 'torture porn' ghetto without actually evaluating each one for its own merits, just as thirty years ago good horror movies directed by David Cronenberg and John Carpenter like The Brood or Halloween were lumped together with turds like Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. While it would be nice if critics could actually apply some judgement other than knee-jerk loathing, I would settle for critics to at least watch the movies they're so quick to demonize.

The other reason I'm frustrated by the 'torture porn' appellation is that it overlooks all the other forms of cinematic exploitation that go on. I'm of the opinion that a gory action movie like Pearl Harbor, 300, or Man on Fire is inherently more problematic than a gory horror movie. Each of these movies exploits violent action for the viewing pleasure of the home audience, but in a significantly different manner than in Hostel or Saw. The violence in the horror movies is perpetrated _on_ the movie's protagonists, represented as horrible and experienced as violations, outrages: bad. the violence and torture of the Spartan warriors in 300 or Denzel Washington in Man on Fire is perpetrated _by_ the movies' protagonists and represented as appropriate, desireable, righteous: good. Audience complicity is completely different in the two genres of film, and more clearly objectionable in the action movies. This also leaves behind emotional pornography, art-porn, romance-porn, or any other way to pander to human emotions in ways other than by representing the human body.

Finally, criticism of these movies extends into a criticism of horror as a whole, and overlooks the cinematic traditions they stem from. These are not an original development in American horror, but merely a resurgence of forms that have been popular in Asian, European, and grindhouse traditions: Captivity is a giallo, from its black leather gloves to its fluid cinematography; Chan-Wook Park's movies are as brutal as anything made by Eli Roth, but he gets a pass because he works in a foreign language; and The Texas Chainsaw sequels speak for themselves. The idea that a torture movie is more problematic than other forms of horror because the gory torture scenes are foregrounded above the narrative ignores the very point of a horror film: you go to see a horror film to be scared, and the experience is inherently masochistic; the only difference between a classical horror narrative and a modern film is one of subtlety vs. directness, with tradeoffs inherent either way.

This is all to say that there's plenty of room for discussion and debate on these issues, but narrow-minded individuals who refuse to have honest discussions about them are the villains of the day. Anyone who can't find a difference between Turistas and Hostel isn't worthy of the name 'critic'.

And Joe Leydon owes me an apology.

Skidoo (1968)

I can understand why a viewer in 1968 might be offended by going to see a new movie from the director of Anatomy of a Murder and Advise & Consent and getting a movie as incoherent and painfully trendy as Otto Preminger's Skidoo, but seeing it today, we're free to enjoy it on other levels beyond mainstream entertainment: as a time capsule, as an attempt by a successful director to broaden his artistic horizons by adopting what must have seemed like the exciting new styles of such directors as Richard Lester, and as an insane movie artifact where some new piece of lunacy is lurking around every scene. Where else can you find a movie where Jackie Gleason is a retired mobster going out for one last hit on the orders of mob boss Groucho Marx, to eliminate incarcerated gangster Mickey Rooney? Where Austin Pendleton plays a technical genius and LSD enthusiast who doses an entire prison population, leading to a jaw-dropping dream ballet of dancing garbage cans set to the music of Harry Nilsson? Where Frank Gorshin speaks through his grimaced teeth (hilariously) to evade the lip-reading capabilities of the prison's surveillance cameras, and where Carol Channing, as Gleason's wife, belts out the title song ("Skidoo, Skidoo! Between a one and three there is a two!") dressed in a hippie-Napoleon getup while boarding Groucho's yacht hideaway with an army of flower children...it's that kind of movie.
Of course, it's not really very good - the comedy often falls flat, Groucho Marx is a little embarrassing to watch at the very end of his career, and nothing of any real consequence happens. But it's a must-see regardless.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Highest-grossing horror movies

These are the 20 highest-grossing horror movies of the last five years:

The Ring (2002): $129.1m
The Village (2004): $114.2m
The Grudge (2004): $110.4m
Red Dragon (2002): $92.1m
Saw II (2005): $87.0m
Freddy vs. Jason (2003): $82.6m
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003): $80.6m
Saw III (2006): $80.2m
The Ring Two (2005): $76.2m
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005): $75.1m
The Amityville Horror (2005): $65.2m
Gothika (2003): $59.7m
Dawn of the Dead (2004): $59.0m
1408 (2007): $58.8m (so far)
White Noise (2005): $56.4m
Saw (2004): $55.2m
The Omen (2006): $54.6m
Final Destination 3 (2006): $54.1m
Hide and Seek (2005): $51.1m
The Skeleton Key (2005): $47.9m

I'm not counting sci-fi terror tales like Signs or War of the Worlds or action/horror hybrids like Resident Evil or Ghost Rider. What this means is that the most popular horror movies are ghost stories (7 titles) followed by slashers (3), gore movies (3), devil/possession movies (2), and the rest (zombies, voodoo, monsters in the woods, etc.)

In other words: there is no epidemic of torture movies plaguing theaters, despite what the lazy bluenoses would have everyone think.

(Oh yeah, and I would only call six of these twenty good movies - numbers 1, 3, 6, 13, 14, and 18.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The "Cloverfield" Trailer

I hate to be the tool of a marketing campaign, but I wanted to comment a little on this trailer, which reportedly was attached to prints of Transformers. It seems really lame to me, because even though it appears to be an attempt to make a CGI event/action movie that looks like it was shot on handheld, consumer-level DV, they get so many obvious things wrong that I'm annoyed with it from the get-go. To do a movie like this right, you have to shoot it in the proper shooting format - 4x3 or 16x9, to match what a consumer camera looks like, not widescreen 2.35:1. The explosions and FX shots look fake, the editing is conventional, and the movie apparently comes with a story arc and a handsome protagonist, both of which scream 'Hollywood formula' to me, not verite-realism. It's too bad because the idea of a ground-level movie like this is a great concept which J.J. Abrams and crew are seemingly bastardizing.

"Spielberg on Spielberg"

I saw this new TCM documentary last night. Apparently Richard Schickel has decided to make a cottage industry out of breezy interview-documentaries about every major American filmmaker, which he can then sell as DVD bonus features.

Anyway, it's an entertaining enough little documentary, but it stays very surface-level and never peers into the depths of Spielberg's work or his complexities as an artist. This is primarily because the movie is literally Spielberg telling his own story, and so he's free to rehash all his old stories and spin some new ones, from the comfort of his own perspective. Present are his stories about his youth and inexperience in the late 1960s, the agonies of making Jaws, the failure of 1941, his uncertainty over The Color Purple, and the controversy of Munich. I was happy to see Spielberg defend the present-day bookend scenes of Saving Private Ryan (essential for grounding the film in the present) and the brilliant ending of A.I. (part of Kubrick's original bitterly ironic treatment, not tacked on out of misguided sentimentality by Spielberg).

Not present are other stories, like his upbringing and background as a geeky suburban child of divorce; his Jaws-related Oscar embarrassment, and the strife with Verna Fields over her contributions to the film's success; his role as producer and the problems that plagued Twilight Zone: The Movie and Poltergeist; the problems of racism and violence in Temple of Doom; the failures of Always and Hook; and any significant mention of Last Crusade, Amistad, The Lost World, Catch Me If You Can, or The Terminal. When politics are mentioned, as in regard to Spielberg's critiques of governmental surveillance in Minority Report or bureaucracy in The Terminal, or our responses to terrorism in War of the Worlds or Munich, Schickel and Spielberg discreetly downplay the controversies as if to deny that any of those films contained anything that could even be considered controversial or problematic.

What I'd love to see is an objective documentary about the man (who I consider to be one of the three or four greatest living filmmakers, by the way) that goes into all the ups and downs of Spielberg's career, including a true critique of his artistic achievements and failures, including a look at his discomfort with portraying adult romance and sex, his influence on modern blockbusters, and so on. As one of the most compelling, successful, and influential filmmakers of our time, his work demands more than a puff-piece retrospective.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

1408 (2007)

[Before I go any farther: My enjoyment of this movie was severely hampered by the marketing team at Weinstein/MGM, who made sure to stick every special effects shot into the trailer and capped it off with a stupid ending (the little girl growling like Mercedes McCambridge, "don't you love me, Daddy?") which seemed to spoil the whole movie. Curses to these marketers for their insistence on the lazy hard sell.]

Anyway, it's been a while since there's been a full-fledged Stephen King movie out there - and in particular, the purest form of Stephen King movie, in which a cynical middle-class white guy, usually a writer and usually estranged from his family, is subjected to bizarre and frightening occurrences beyond his comprehension (The Shining, Pet Sematary, The Dark Half, etc.) This time it's John Cusack as the cynical writer who explores haunted bed & breakfasts, although it's not clear what exactly his writings consist of - the movie can't seem to decide if he's a tour guide or a debunker.

Cusack travels to a big luxury hotel in New York, where Samuel L. Jackson, in a nice scene loaded with foreshadowing, tries to warn him away. Sorry, too cynical! Cusack replies, and he's off to the haunted room 1408. For most of the remainder of the movie, director Mikael Hafstrom pulls out every trick in his arsenal to freak the fuck out of Cusack and us.

While the movie is enjoyable as a summer horror-movie thrill ride, it falls a little short in its sub-Shirley Jackson efforts at serious drama, to get Cusack to come to terms with his family crises through spookery. Hafstrom's attempts at psychology are convincing, thanks to Cusack's inherent likability, but a little shallow.

What I do take away from most strongly in the movie is the idea that Cusack's Mike Enslin is being punished not for his failings as a father or husband, but rather because of his success as a professional cynic. People are attracted to the idea of ghosts and hauntings because they suggest the possibility of an afterlife, as the movie tells us; Enslin's cynicism goes punished as a symptom of his closed-mindedness. The final scene of the movie, in which Enslin shares the impossible tape-recording of his ghostly daughter with his wife, illustrates this awakening - but Cusack's face does not register enlightenment, but existential dread, the knowledge that there is something out there - and it's pissed.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The AFI list

I feel like the new version of the AFI Top 100 American movies list is an improvement over the version from ten years ago; creaky movies like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Jazz Singer were kicked out in favor of The General and Nashville and the whole thing just feels more modern. I like these lists, not merely because I like lists but also because I agree with the idea that these kinds of lists bring more attention to the existence of old movies and therefore get more people to explore movies they'd otherwise never care about. Sure, the list is kind of middle-brow and safe, but that's to be expected - I don't expect the AFI to promote Eraserhead, which they helped to produce, or Pink Flamingos on a primetime TV special.

One interesting change from the old list to the new was the swap of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance for his earlier The Birth of a Nation; a good idea, since Birth is notoriously racist. What strikes me as odd is Roger Ebert's quote on the matter, where he says that in his estimation, Birth is the "better film" of the two, because it was influential and invented cinema. No argument on those points, but influential does not 'better' make, and the film's racism, to me, disqualifies it from being a good film in any way; and this isn't just casual racism of a contemporary, 'they didn't know any better' variety; Birth of a Nation is a deeply racist movie down to its very core; promoting the Klan and bemoaning the decline of the White Race in the South are key to the film's existence. What is Ebert thinking?

(Side topic, from the same Ebert column: after trashing what Ebert calls 'dead teenager movies' in reference to the AFI list, and in the face of horror-movie defenders, Ebert claims, "I agree that Halloween is great, but disagree that it is a DTM [Dead Teenager Movie]" which he describes as "a movie that starts out with a lot of teenagers, and kills them all, except one to populate the sequel." Again, huh? This describes Halloween to a T, one of the movies that invented this subgenre. Ebert is clouding the issue to avoid having to defend his categorical declaration, which is false. Most teenage slasher movies are junk, but there are plenty that aren't.)

It seems that everyone is countering with their own Top 100 lists, so here's mine. My main criteria were to limit the list to American movies, which means that I eliminated movies that felt too British, including such AFI movies as The Third Man, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia, among other British or Canadian productions. I stuck with the time frame of no movies more recent than 2005 and allowed documentary titles into the mix (why not?). 42 of my movies were on one or both AFI lists. so here we go:


THE GOLD RUSH (1925, Charlie Chaplin)
THE GENERAL (1927, Buster Keaton)
THE CROWD (1928, King Vidor)

FREAKS (1932, Tod Browning)
DUCK SOUP (1933, Leo McCarey)
KING KONG (1933, Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack)
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935, Sam Wood)
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939, Victor Fleming)
NINOTCHKA (1939, Ernst Lubitsch)

FANTASIA (1940, Walt Disney)
HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940, Howard Hawks)
THE BANK DICK (1940, Eddie Cline)
CITIZEN KANE (1941, Orson Welles)
THE LADY EVE (1941, Preston Sturges)
CASABLANCA (1942, Michael Curtiz)
CAT PEOPLE (1942, Jacques Tourneur)
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944, Billy Wilder)
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946, Frank Capra)
THE BIG SLEEP (1946, Howard Hawks)

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950, Billy Wilder)
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952, Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly)
HIGH NOON (1952, Fred Zinnemann)
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953, Byron Haskin)
ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953, William Wyler)
PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953, Samuel Fuller)
REAR WINDOW (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
KISS ME DEADLY (1955, Robert Aldrich)
THE SEARCHERS (1956, John Ford)
VERTIGO (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
TOUCH OF EVIL (1958, Orson Welles)
IMITATION OF LIFE (1959, Douglas Sirk)
RIO BRAVO (1959, Howard Hawks)

PSYCHO (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
THE APARTMENT (1960, Billy Wilder)
WEST SIDE STORY (1961, Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins)
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962, John Frankenheimer)
THE BIRDS (1963, Alfred Hitchcock)
DR. STRANGELOVE (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
POINT BLANK (1967, John Boorman)
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968, George A. Romero)
THE WILD BUNCH (1969, Sam Peckinpah)

MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971, Robert Altman)
THE GODFATHER (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
PINK FLAMINGOS (1972, John Waters)
THE EXORCIST (1973, William Friedkin)
THE GODFATHER PART II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
CHINATOWN (1974, Roman Polanski)
THE CONVERSATION (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
NASHVILLE (1975, Robert Altman)
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975, Sidney Lumet)
TAXI DRIVER (1976, Martin Scorsese)
NETWORK (1976, Sidney Lumet)
CARRIE (1976, Brian DePalma)
STAR WARS (1977, George Lucas)
ANNIE HALL (1977, Woody Allen)
MARTIN (1977, George A. Romero)
ERASERHEAD (1977, David Lynch)
DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978, Terrence Malick)
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978, George A. Romero)
HALLOWEEN (1978, John Carpenter)
GATES OF HEAVEN (1978, Errol Morris)
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)

RAGING BULL (1980, Martin Scorsese)
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980, Irvin Kershner/George Lucas)
AIRPLANE! (1980, David Zucker/Jim Abrahams/Jerry Zucker)
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981, Steven Spielberg/George Lucas)
BLOW OUT (1981, Brian DePalma)
KOYAANISQATSI (1983, Godfrey Reggio)
AMADEUS (1984, Milos Forman)
GHOSTBUSTERS (1984, Ivan Reitman)
THE TERMINATOR (1984, James Cameron)
BRAZIL (1985, Terry Gilliam)
BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985, Robert Zemeckis)
BLUE VELVET (1986, David Lynch)
RAISING ARIZONA (1987, Joel Coen/Ethan Coen)
ROGER & ME (1989, Michael Moore)

GOODFELLAS (1990, Martin Scorsese)
JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)
SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993, Steven Spielberg)
PULP FICTION (1994, Quentin Tarantino)
ED WOOD (1994, Tim Burton)
DEAD MAN (1995, Jim Jarmusch)
FARGO (1996, Joel Coen/Ethan Coen)
TITANIC (1997, James Cameron)
FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL (1997, Errol Morris)
THE THIN RED LINE (1998, Terrence Malick)
MAGNOLIA (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson)
FIGHT CLUB (1999, David Fincher)
TOY STORY 2 (1999, John Lasseter/Ash Brannon/Lee Unkrich)

A.I. (2001, Steven Spielberg)
ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002, Alexander Payne)
THE NEW WORLD (2005, Terrence Malick)

This gives us four titles each from Hawks, Hitchcock, Coppola, and Spielberg; three from Wilder, Romero, Scorsese, and Malick; and two each by Welles, Ford, Kubrick, Altman, Lumet, DePalma, Cameron, the Coens, Morris, Lynch, and two Star Wars movies.