Mystic River. For me, the best movie Clint Eastwood has directed. I’ve never been a big fan of Eastwood’s work as a director … I find him competent in that “always get the movie in on time and on budget” way, and I’ve often wondered why he is so honored. But Mystic River is a triumphant match for Eastwood’s best qualities. He trusts actors … I’m not on the set, but my guess is he lets them work out their characters, and when the writing is as strong and subtle as it is here, and when the actors are people like Sean Penn and Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden, it’s a good idea to get out of their way. The three central male characters all work hard at suppressing outward emotions, but all do it in different ways … Penn is always about to explode, Robbins sinks within himself, and Kevin Bacon hides behind a sheen of professionalism. (Bacon is a pleasant surprise here, holding his own with the other actors.) #36 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the best films of the 21st century. 9/10.
The Last House on the Left. Almost 40 years after I saw this at a drive-in during its initial release, I revisit this cult classic. I’ve told the story many times, about how the truck next to us was parked backwards so they could sit in the back and drink a thousand beers while they watched. When the guy in the movie got his dick bitten off, one of the guys in the truck leaned over the side and puked really loud. Ever since, I’ve thought of that guy as the perfect critic for what I found to be a worthless film. The difference between now and then is that I’ve had to address the movie as an academic might (one of the members of my dissertation committee was Carol J. Clover, whose landmark book Men, Women and Chainsaws turned the horror community on its head). So now I know that the movie was based on Bergman’s Virgin Spring, that Wes Craven had a masters degree in philosophy which he has relied on throughout his career as a director, that while the film was a cheap exploitation feature, it was intended to be something more. Many intelligent people have dug deeply into the film, and come up with interesting, relevant analyses. Watching it again, I can see that Craven’s direction was more effective than I realized at the time. And finally, I can see both why the movie is so bothersome (it’s really good at expressing the powerlessness of the victim, as personified in the never-to-be-forgotten “piss your pants” scene) and cathartic (the revenge angle in the film’s final scenes, which are too standard and not nearly transgressive enough, despite the painful fellatio). So I was wrong to consider The Last House on the Left a piece of junk. But I don’t care if it’s another 38 years before I see it again. 6/10.