they shoot pictures in the 21st century

A couple of weeks after the main list was released, we get the 2017 version of the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Here are the top ten movies, with last year’s ranking in parentheses:

1. In the Mood for Love (1)
2. Mulholland Dr. (2)
3. Yi Yi (3)
4. There Will Be Blood (9)
5. Caché (7)
6. The Tree of Life (8)
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (5)
8. Spirited Away (4)
9. Tropical Malady (13)
10. Brokeback Mountain (28)

Over on the I Check Movies site, I find that I have seen 449 of the top 1000 movies (actually 1001 due to multiple-part works). This puts me at #529 on the list of ICM users who have submitted their viewing history to the site. Here are the top 10 ranked films on the TSPDT list that I haven’t seen:

1. Tropical Malady
2. Werckmeister Harmonies
3. Russian Ark
4. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
6. Dogville
7. Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks
8. Punch-Drunk Love
9. The Turin Horse
10. Melancholia

them! (gordon douglas, 1954)

All of those giant bug movies from the 50s tend to run together in my mind, so I have to tip my hat to my wife. She never wants to watch them when I find one, but she jumped right on Them!, because “it’s good”. (She proceeded to mimic the sound of the giant ants.)

What makes Them! better than the others (Tarantula, The Black Scorpion, The Deadly Mantis, Earth vs. The Spider)? It takes itself seriously, but not too much. The budget is decent, if not extravagant. Everyone gave their best effort. The serious angle comes from the movie being more like a detective story than a monster movie (some have even labeled it film noir). Director Gordon Douglas was a journeyman whose career went all the way back to Our Gang shorts, one of which won an Oscar. He made movies in every genre, many of them low-budget affairs. He even directed an Elvis movie (Follow That Dream, a reasonably decent effort). Douglas was efficient, and in Them! made a solid movie that didn’t draw attention to it’s low budget. That budget kept being reduced ... it was going to be in 3-D, then it wasn’t, it was going to be in color, then it wasn’t. But it remained a Warner Brothers production, even if it wasn’t quite an A-picture.

One area that impressed me was the absence of stock footage. There are perhaps fewer scenes of the military building up its arsenal ... mostly just Army vehicles driving around. But stock footage in these cheap movies is always distracting, and Them! avoids that problem.

As for effort, well, it’s hard to say. I wasn’t on the set. But the cast is decent. Edmund Gwenn, who plays the scientist who knows everything, apparently was suffering from extreme arthritis, but he never missed a take when the cameras rolled. The male leads were the personification of solid: James Whitmore and James Arness. Even Joan Weldon, in the stock thankless role of the scientist’s daughter, is good. She commands her own authority as a scientist, and is believable in the role.

As for the special effects, which won Them! an Oscar nomination (it lost to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), they are, like the movie as a whole, sufficient without being great. The giant ants are almost always seen in shade or darkness, which removes much of the obvious artifice. The sound my wife remembered so well came from recordings of tree frogs.

Those of us who grew up watching these movies on TV when we were kids recall very well the beginning of the movie, where a little girl, in shock, wanders alone in the desert. She doesn’t speak until the movie is well underway, and in doing so, she gives us the title: “THEM!” she screams. It’s an effective bit of restraint, which is how I’d describe the movie. It has its giant bugs, but it uses restraint effectively. Rating a movie like this is a bit difficult ... no one is saying Them! is as good as, say, On the Waterfront, which won a lot of Oscars that same year. But compared to the giant bug movies, Them! is a colossus. And it’s a must-see for fans of Starship Troopers. 8/10.

ip man 2 (wilson yip, 2010)

Sequel to Ip Man (duh) ... since the series is “based on fact”, this sequel has a slightly different emphasis. In the first movie, which took place in the 1930s, the enemy was the Japanese. Ip Man 2 comes after WWII ... Ip Man moves to Hong Kong, and the enemy becomes the British occupiers. In both movies, Donnie Yen shows the greatness of the Wing Chun fighting style, and the greatness of the Chinese over everyone else.

Matt Prigge pointed out that the plot is similar to Rocky IV, with Chinese substitutes for Rocky and Apollo Creed, and a British sub for Ivan Drago. Mostly this just means the movie works ... the plot is time-tested! It also means there aren’t many surprises to be found, which means Ip Man 2 relies more on its fight scenes than anything else.

Which is just fine, since the fight scenes are excellent. The immortal Sammo Hung is in charge, as he was for the first film. This time, he also has a part in the film, so we get to watch Sammo in action. He’s not in his prime ... before the film was made, he had heart surgery, he was 58 years old, and he got his face smashed during one fight scene. But he is still Sammo, and his choreography hasn’t lost a step. Donnie Yen is great, as always, although he, too, is getting on in years. It’s a joy to see him after his less-active role in Rogue One. Darren Shahlavi is properly scary as the British pugilist who fights Ip Man in the final scene.

By the time of that final fight, Wilson Yip has fired up a pretty intense anti-British atmosphere. The first part of the film deals with the differences between the various schools of martial arts, but gradually a theme of pride in Chinese culture rises to the top, and when that happens, the British start twirling their proverbial mustaches.

You don’t watch Ip Man 2 for the depth of character or the original plot. You’ve seen it before. But the combination of Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung always delivers. 7/10.

film fatales #24: fat girl (catherine breillat, 2001)

This is my first Breillat film, and so any comparisons I make between this and her other films is limited to what I have read. I can’t simply ignore what I already know, but it seems mostly irrelevant except as it relates to the one movie I have seen.

Fat Girl is very much an in-your-face film. Breillat’s willingness to show sexual acts in a straightforward way makes them different from other films that are more intentionally erotic. There is, however, nothing ordinary about the ways the characters in Fat Girl use sexuality as expressions of their personalities, and the emotional impact of sexual acts is intense in realistic ways most films shy away from.

The three main characters are two sisters, one, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), 15 years old and conventionally pretty, and one, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), 13 years old and the titular girl, whose prettiness comes from within, along with a college boy, Fernando, who meets the sisters during holiday. All of the characters are complicated, and Breillat is mostly uninterested in applying simple labels to them. The boy uses every trick at his disposal to get Elena to have sex with him, and we see his insincerity, but Breillat isn’t trying to vilify him. If anything, she’s vilifying men in general, for Fernando is presented more as a thoughtless and careless man than as someone with personally bad motives. Elena sees through him, but willfully denies what she sees because she thinks she wants what he is offering. It’s as if she knows in advance that he will break her heart (and more), but thinks of it as a necessary part of growing into womanhood. Anaïs, meanwhile, stands in for us, watching, mistrusting Fernando ... she’s smarter than her older sister, and doesn’t have the emotional attachment to Fernando that leads to trouble for Elena. Breillat shoots two key sex scenes between Elena and Fernando by focusing on Anaïs, who is in the room “sleeping”. When we experience Elena’s hurt, that experience is channeled through Anaïs.

The relationship between the two sisters is the best thing about Fat Girl. They snipe at each other, they know the right places to stick the knife, but they are also emotionally inseparable. They are the only people with whom they can be real.

Fat Girl has a shocking ending that I thought was senseless. In retrospect, after hearing Breillat talk about her film, I think I understand the way the ending puts the final point on the differences between the two girls, but I still believe it comes out of nowhere. The final line of the movie is powerful, but getting there is perhaps the closest the film comes to exploitation. #218 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

by request: in the heart of the sea (ron howard, 2015)

In the best of all worlds, I would be able to set aside preconceptions when encountering a new movie. I am not usually up to the task, though, and seeing Ron Howard’s name on a movie leads to certain expectations. It won’t suck, it won’t be great, it will be inoffensive but probably entertaining enough, and I won’t care about it after it’s over.

A couple of times, Howard has surprised me, although even then it’s more a case of “like” than “love”. (My favorites are Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon.) In the Heart of the Sea has a modicum of ambition, with some big action sequences. But it has a framing device which doesn’t work, and while it’s based on a non-fiction book, I sense it is “based on a true story” the way most such movies are, i.e. it plays fast and loose with the true story when necessary.

The central story of In the Heart of the Sea is the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in the early 19th century. The primary culprit behind the sinking is a white whale so big it is legendary. I found the special effects hit or miss, but the whale is pretty impressive, even if it often looks like the actors are working in front of a screen. The framing device is drawn from the fact that Herman Melville supposedly found inspiration for Moby-Dick in the story of the Essex.

A movie that stuck with the whaling action would have been a bit mundane, but it would have entertained, and it would have been over in 100 minutes, tops. But the frame adds another twenty minutes, and it’s silly. Herman Melville comes to interview the last remaining survivor of the Essex, in order to get information for the novel he is writing (yep, Moby-Dick). The survivor tells the story, and Melville dutifully writes it all down. These scenes interrupt the rest of the movie, which is bad enough. But the real crime is the suggestion that arguably the greatest novel in American literature grew out of interview notes. There is no feel for what Melville brought to the story.

And while Melville fills his novel with symbolism, Howard’s movie is by the numbers. It works on the level of a simple adventure story, but there is no hint of anything deeper.

Which is often the case with Ron Howard movies. He is a real professional, almost incapable of turning out a bad movie. (OK, Backdraft was pretty bad.) But I rarely see any inspiration behind his work. 6/10.

oscar run: hail, caesar! (ethan and joel coen, 2016)

It’s time to get over my belief that I don’t care for the Coen Brothers. I keep telling myself this, because I don’t think The Big Lebowski is the greatest film ever made, because I didn’t like Miller’s Crossing, because ... hell, I forget all the reasons. But Hail, Caesar! is the fifth movie by the brothers that I’ve given at least an 8/10 rating. So clearly I like a lot of their work.

I don’t know why Hail, Caesar! appealed to me, for it had some of the same things I usually complain about with the Coens. They preen over the notion that they know more than we do, and too often their movies turn into “spot the reference”. But there was some real love for movies here, almost resembling joy, and when that occurs, I’m glad the writer/directors are smart. Unless you have seen as many movies as the Coens, you won’t come close to getting every reference here, but I think you can enjoy the movie even if you don’t spot a single one.

Because Hail, Caesar! takes place at a movie studio, there is a legitimate reason for showing different kinds of movies being made. The dance number, “No Dames!”, is a particular delight, with Channing Tatum showing off his dance moves in a role that “resembles” Gene Kelly. (There is a lot of “resembling” going on ... Tilda Swinton plays twin columnists that are some odd combination of Hedda Hopper, Ann Landers, and Dear Abby, Scarlett Johansson “is” Esther Williams, and George Clooney is ... well, he’s a blend of too many to count, Charlton Heston is probably closest.) The plot is less important than it seems. Manohla Dargis gets it right when she says the film “at times brings to mind one of those old plot-free film revues that featured a grab bag of studio talent performing in strung-together musical, comic, and dramatic scenes.”

Just in case you’re missing the kitchen sink, they also toss in a bunch of screenwriters who turn to Communism (the film takes place in the early-50s). They brag about how they sneak lefty propaganda into their films, and their mentor is “Professor Marcuse” who “is” Herbert Marcuse. At the beginning of the movie, Clooney is in costume for a film, Hail, Caesar!, that looks a lot like Ben-Hur. He is kidnapped by the writers, and later returns to the studio, where he shoots the final scene of the Hail, Caesar! in the movie Hail, Caesar! At which point you realize Clooney has been wearing his Roman costume the whole movie.

Hail, Caesar! is amiable and moves along with ease. I have yet to see a Coens film that matched Fargo, but Hail, Caesar! is one of their better ones. Oh, and it’s Oscar nomination is for Production Design.

they shoot pictures, don't they: 2017

The 2017 version of the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time has arrived.

Site master Bill Georgaris, who does this as a labor of love, details several changes to the methodology used to compile the list. Honestly, I don’t understand them, but I trust that Bill has a reasonable system, and it is fun to follow those 1000 films (and try in vain to see them all). He notes that the changes result is realignment, rather than a complete overturning of the past. One result is that more recent films have a better chance of improving their position on the list. (At one point a few years ago, he added a Top 250 films of the 21st century list, because too many movies were left out of the more tradition-bound original list. Since then, he has expanded that list to also include 1000 films. I wonder how these changes will affect the relationship between the two lists.)

You can read much of this information on the site, but to summarize the highlights ...

The top ten films are the same, but in slightly different order:

1. Citizen Kane (1)
2. Vertigo (2)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (3)
4. The Rules of the Game (5)
5. Tokyo Story (4)
6. (7)
7. The Godfather (6)
8. Sunrise (8)
9. The Searchers (10)
10. The Seven Samurai (9)

The biggest leap since last year was by Brokeback Mountain, which went from #718 to #323. The highest first-timer was Hunger, at #726. The biggest fall was Ashes of Time, which went from #686 to off the list.

Over on the I Check Movies site, I find that I have seen 624 of the top 1000 movies (actually 1012 due to multiple-part works). This puts me at #687 on the list of ICM users who have submitted their viewing history to the site. Here are the top 10 ranked films on the TSPDT list that I haven’t seen ... call this the “Goals for 2017” list:

#29: The Mirror

#59: Stalker

#71: Journey to Italy

#76: Pickpocket

#83: Gertrud

#101: Satantango

#102: The Mother and the Whore

#109: Once Upon a Time in America

#113: Letter from an Unknown Woman

#117: Hiroshima mon amour

oscar run: the lobster (yorgos lanthimos, 2015)

I try, but usually fail, to come to a movie cold, with no plot spoilers. In the case of The Lobster, I actually pulled it off. All I knew about it was that it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and that it had disturbed my friend Charlie very much. (He eventually wrote a piece about it, “Consider the Lobster”.)

Halfway through the movie, I had to pause and go to Facebook, where I wrote the following:

"We all dance by ourselves. That's why we only play electronic music."

Just reached the halfway point of The Lobster. All I knew about it going in was that Charlie Bertsch was very disturbed by it. I didn't realize it was a comedy.

If I’d read up on the film in advance, I would have found that The Lobster was “a black-hearted flat-affect comedy” (Sheila O’Malley), “wickedly funny” (Guy Lodge), a “terrifically twisted satire” (Peter Travers), and an “absurdist romantic tragicomedy” (Stephanie Zacharek). But it was nice being surprised, nice to realize that while The Lobster thinks it is serious, it is also intentionally funny.

I was reminded of other things I’d liked or hated. For the latter, there was Kevin Smith’s Tusk, which disturbed me so much I never wrote about it (madman gradually turns a human into a walrus ... 5/10). The title of The Lobster comes from one of the essential plot points: single people have 45 days to find a mate, or they will be turned into an animal of their own choosing (the main character, played by Colin Ferrell, chooses a lobster, “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.”

I was also reminded of the TV series Black Mirror, which I like very much. Like The Lobster, Black Mirror shows dystopian versions of the near future, laced in many cases with sly humor. The TV series is an anthology with standalone episodes, but all revolve to a greater or lesser extent on the technology of our lives, futurized just enough to differentiate slightly from the present. It’s a standard trick of dystopias, to create a world recognizably related to our own.

The performances in The Lobster are designed to throw us off ever so slightly. There’s Colin Farrell, except he doesn’t quite look like Colin Farrell, he’s a bit dumpy (he gained 40 pounds for the part) and decidedly un-sexy. Léa Seydoux may be incapable of un-sexiness (although the same might be said of Farrell before this part), but there is a hard-nosed bad-assery to her here that comes not from action scenes as much as from the determined look on her face, daring you to underestimate her. And Ben Whishaw has established great versatility in his previous roles, so you never know what to expect from him. (He also shares with Seydoux a 007 connection: she was a Bond Girl in Spectre, he is the most recent Q ... another actress from the film, Rachel Weisz, adds a trivia-answer 007 connection as well, since she is married to Daniel Craig.)  Suffice to say, everything is a bit off in The Lobster, so when you realize things are actually very off, that realization sneaks up on you.

So no, I wasn’t disturbed by The Lobster, perhaps because while I was aware Lanthimos had a larger theme in mind, I never connected with it, whatever it was. I just took in the pleasures of the film. I can’t leave without mentioning a couple of my favorite actresses, Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, Fleabag) and Ashley Jensen (Extras, Catastrophe). I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Lobster fun, or say I wanted to watch it again. But for the most part, the fun was what appealed to me. 7/10.

the killer (john woo, 1989)

I’ve been a bit sick the past few days, and so I sat down to watch an old favorite to pass the time. I wandered around the On Demand menus until I saw this, and cranked it up.

I wrote an essay back in 1994, “The Meaning of Chow (It’s in His Mouth)”. I spent a lot of time explaining why I thought I could never penetrate the essence of Chow (and HK films in general).

It is odd and charming ... yet I feel like my words have been spoken before, by other American dilettantes, taking pleasure in the 'exotic' Orient. Charming, because different. Odd, because different. Above all, different. However Hong Kong action movies are perceived in Hong Kong itself, in the U.S. they are first and foremost different, alien, even as they freely borrow from our own movie traditions. It is that difference, in part, that I am responding to when I watch Chow Yun-Fat. Perhaps I even make a fetish of that difference; I embrace the alien, make it, for a moment, mine.... I am confronted with the barriers between my experiences and Asian culture. For an American to watch a Chow Yun-Fat movie is to partake in an ultimate experiment in audience-response theory. We don't understand the culture that produced a Chow Yun-Fat, so we are left to the subjective experience we bring to the movie theatre.

Ironically, this “theory” of the unknowable “meaning of Chow” was proven wrong in a connecting essay by a friend, Jillian Sandell, whose writing on John Woo was so on target she heard from Woo, who said it was one of the best things he had read about his work (she managed to get an interview with Woo out of this exchange). My disconnect was personal, not universal.

In my own essay, I argued that without the cultural context of growing up Chinese, I ended up focusing on more surface tendencies, on things I could fetishize, like his mouth (“Blowing smoke, dangling his toothpick, eating chocolate, or just smiling ... ultimately, when trying to explain why Chow Yun-Fat is cool, it comes down to his mouth.”)

I’ve watched a lot of Chow Yun-Fat movies since then, and a lot of John Woo films, as well. And a lot of Hong Kong movies ... while my passions have dimmed somewhat, throughout most of the 90s, I obsessed about the movies, seeking them out wherever I could (I once went into a Chinese video store where no one spoke English, pointed at a picture of Chow, and said, “I want his movies!”). Gradually their popularity in the States grew ... one repertory theatre in Berkeley showed HK double-bills every Thursday night. But for me, The Killer is where it started.

I was at the video store, and I saw a life-size cardboard cutout advertising The Killer. I no longer remember the details, but it was so striking that I knew I had to rent it. Thus, The Killer stands as the movie that introduced me to Hong Kong films, especially of the urban action genre.

I once showed The Killer to my students in an introductory class at Cal. I had many Asian students in the class, and I remember one of them telling me that their parents were pissed off, that they didn’t pay all that money to send their kid to Cal only to have them watch trashy HK movies. I was surprised, since I thought of The Killer as an art film.

There are John Woo movies I like more than I like The Killer. Hard-Boiled is the standard, Bullet in the Head an over-the-top favorite (OK, all of these movies are over-the-top), A Better Tomorrow solidified the “Heroic Bloodshed” genre’s popularity. Not to mention Woo’s films in other genres, like Once a Thief and Red Cliff. But The Killer will always be first.

The Killer excels in the staging of action scenes, of course, but what marked this film, and many others in the genre, is the relationship between the male leads. Sandell wrote:

[T]his homoeroticism always occurs within moments of excessive violence, a violence that is invariably represented as beautiful, stylized and desirable. The very filmic techniques used — such as soft focus, slow-motion and subtle colors — characterize the violence as romantic. Moreover, in shoot-outs between the heroes and villains, the heroes seem to almost 'dance' and 'swoon' as they fire their weapons, and such scenes are inundated with discharge (bullets and blood) being expelled from male bodies and weapons.

And, describing the final shootout where cop and assassin join forces:

[T]hey do more than merely join forces; they fire their weapons in harmony, they gracefully leap away from flying bullets, they gaze lovingly into each others eyes, and they move in synchronized time and motions, employing a kind of mutuality not found elsewhere in the film. Thus, the relationship between the two men is characterized as being not merely homoerotic but also, in some senses, transcendent.

I was pleased to find that The Killer holds up well. I'm still astonished both by the violence and the emotionalism, but my reaction is much as it was in the past. The movie doesn’t seem sillier now. It is quite the same. #635 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.

film fatales #23 / oscar run: 13th (ava duvernay, 2016)

This documentary from Netflix joins ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America as Oscar nominees that were made for television. The subject matter is named in the title, which refers to the 13th amendment. This amendment intended to abolish slavery, but DuVernay’s film argues that the key phrase, “except as a punishment for crime”, left the door open for the continued oppression of blacks. Instead of slaves, whites could draw on a supply of black criminals, and they made sure there were plenty of such criminals to pick from.

DuVernay isn’t addressing slavery straight on, but using it to get to her key theme, that America’s prison system is abhorrent, and has grown rapidly in recent decades. Prisons have replaced plantations. She points particularly to Richard Nixon, who promoted himself as a “law and order” president. None of the subsequent presidents escape DuVernay’s wrath, with Bill Clinton receiving the most pointed attacks for his awful Omnibus Crime Bill, which did more to create prison overcrowding than anything else.

DuVernay marshals an impressive array of talking heads for 13th. It is no surprise to see former inmates articulating life in prison, nor is it unusual to see, for instance, Angela Davis, herself a former inmate, offer intelligent analysis. A few people from Nixon’s circle admit that they specifically singled out black Americans. There are even some surprises ... Newt Gingrich, of all people, adds a measured, reasonable voice.

A movie like 13th is a work of activism, and to some extent, an evaluation of the film demands that we examine how well it makes its points. DuVernay isn’t “fair” in the way old-school journalism believed in. The film is not objective. But it does use facts to buttress its points, and all of those talking heads make for quite a board of experts. It is arguably too short ... DuVernay packs the films with so much information, it is sometimes hard to process, and she might have been better off with a multi-episode television series.

There is one artistic move she makes that I found extremely irritating, although I haven’t seen many other people complain. Her talking heads regularly speak towards some space off camera, rarely looking directly at the viewer. It’s as if she saw Mr. Robot and decided she’d like to try something new. But there seems to be no reason for this. It is just distracting, which is certainly a problem when you are presenting so much information.

There is plenty to learn from 13th, and DuVernay is a passionate artist. But the overwhelming pile of information, and the distractions of the stylistic selections, detract from some of the power. Nonetheless, 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)