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what i watched last week

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986). Impressive and revolting. I admire the ability to make a feature film for $110,000 that is good enough to be critically acclaimed. I suppose the film is daring in its refusal to sensationalize, although the subject matter is sensational enough … if they were really interested in avoiding sensation, they would have spent the $100k on a movie about wrestling (OK, they tried that and it didn’t work). The point is that the absence of affectation, as evidenced by the cinéma vérité look of the film, draws attention to itself and makes it easy for us to admire the work even as we detest what is being shown. Henry shows how most films about sociopaths are junk designed to dazzle the viewer, but it’s like a Dogme movie … it insists on being unentertaining, as if that in itself was proof of its greatness. Roger Corman made movies that were cheaper even than Henry, but he never hid the fact that he was just trying to make a buck and give people a few thrills. #898 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977). This movie makes Henry look like Ben-Hur. David Lynch reportedly spent $20,000. The result is at least as impressive as Henry. But Lynch has never made a film that was absent of affectation, nor is he afraid to draw attention to his methods. As far as I can tell, in Eraserhead, Lynch achieved everything he set out to do, a remarkable feat even if the film had cost $20,000,000. Throughout his career, Lynch has demonstrated the ability to get his vision on the screen, perhaps more with Eraserhead than with any that followed. For that reason alone, this movie deserves a rating of 10/10, as well as all of the acclaim it has received (#329 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list). Having said all of that, I admit David Lynch is not my favorite director. I find many of his movies so insular that there is no way to get inside them. That this is purposeful and reflects his artistic vision is admirable, but not, to me, particularly likable. I don’t hate his movies, and I actually did give The Elephant Man 10/10. But a movie as subjective in the creation as Eraserhead warrants an equally subjective response. If I were anyone but myself, I’d say go with the critics who champion the film.

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). Stories about the nerd revolution, as least the ones I’ve read, tend to portray the geeks as heroic outsiders. The early days of the personal computer pioneers have always intrigued me … I buy into the notion that hackers were the hippies of their generation, with computers replacing drugs. I know I’m indulging in romanticism … I’m just explaining my perspective. One way The Social Network sets itself off from earlier, similar tales is by making the central character, Mark Zuckerberg, unlikable from the start. He’s brilliant, and as played by Jesse Eisenberg, he is aware of the outside world (although he always seems less engaged than cataloging). But his social ineptness is hurtful of others … he’s not lovable, he’s an asshole. The film is full of delightful performances and sparkling dialogue, and the two hours fly by so quickly I was surprised when it was already over. But I think the movie works best as a character study. Zuckerberg is the key … Facebook is just the reason we’ve heard of him. And to the extent social commentary sneaks in, it’s mostly anti-nerd, anti-Facebook, anti-new stuff. Only once does the film get to what I wish was the true point of it all, when Zuckerberg tells one of his lawyers (played by Rashida Jones … I’m sorry, I am required to mention how beautiful she is whenever I say her name) that whatever is on paper, he is not being sued by the twin Harvard Olympic crew studs because he stole their intellectual property … “They're suing me because for the first time in their lives, things didn't go exactly the way they were supposed to for them.” In this, Zuckerberg is not like Jay Gatsby, to whom he has been compared. Zuckerberg doesn’t like the rich, he wants to bring them down. #15 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and winner of 3 Oscars.

Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1958). When I was a film student, one of the directors whose work inspired me was John Cassavetes. This was based entirely on Husbands, which I really liked when it came out. It’s been awhile since I saw Husbands, but looking back it seems like one of Cassavetes’ more self-indulgent movies. Many scenes in Shadows reminded me of a low-budget, B&W Husbands. To be specific, whenever three or more men were being loud and aggressively friendly in a buddy sort of way, I remembered Husbands. I don’t know whether this is a compliment. Shadows is an important film, and it’s not nearly as boring as I expected. It didn’t win any Oscars. But it’s #298 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list.


As usual, I’m a year behind … I’ve only seen 6 of the 10 Best Picture nominees … so this list is idiosyncratic, and uninformed. What could be better?

My choice for Best Picture would be Winter’s Bone. The only nominee I missed that I might eventually put at the top would be Black Swan … get back to me in a year. Honorable mention to Spike Lee’s HBO documentary, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise.

I only saw 3 of the 10 Best Acting nominees, so what do I know, but Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone was my favorite of those three.

I saw a few more of the supporting actor nods, i.e. I saw The Fighter. I think Mark Wahlberg did the best acting job in that movie, but of course, he’s not nominated. I saw 4 of the 5 Supporting Actors, and think John Hawkes and Jeremy Renner are deserving. Of the two women from The Fighter, I guess I’d choose Amy Adams.

I saw two of the best directors, David Fincher and David O. Russell. I liked Fincher’s movie better. I also give props to Fincher because I am not a big fan of his movies … this might be my favorite of them … whereas The Fighter is fine, but nowhere near as good as Three Kings. So I guess that’s a vote for Fincher, whose previous best work was probably Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” video (I told you I’m not a fan).

Finally, I saw 7 of the 10 Best Screenplay nominees … I don’t see the point in separating them into “directly for screen” and “not directly for the screen.” While Inception was not my favorite of those movies, it could be argued that the script established the film in a special way. But, true to what I’ve written above, I’d go with Winter’s Bone.

portlandia, season finale

For once, a new show I watch has been renewed, so I don’t have to write “series finale” in the title.

The humor in Portlandia is gentle … you can tell the people making the show feel an affinity for the people they are making fun of. The list of guest stars is eclectic in an indie-rock way: Kyle MacLachlan, Sarah McLachlan (I never realized they spelled their names differently), Aimee Mann, Edie McClurg, Corin Tucker, Heather Graham. Honestly, I don’t laugh that often when I watch Portlandia … it’s not 30 Rock. But the show has a certain charm that makes laugh-out-loud hilarity less necessary than is usual for a comedy.

Of course, I wouldn’t have watched even one episode if Carrie Brownstein wasn’t in it. Happily, she is one of the best things about the show. She and Fred Armisen play dozens of characters, and they hold nothing back. And when Carrie smiles … well, she’s got a big smile, and if, like me, you already think of her as the Adorable Queen, that smile makes up for a lot.

Portlandia isn’t a great show, and I’m not sure how broad its audience will ever be. Anyone who lives in a place like Portland will appreciate this show, but others might just scratch their heads. I’m glad IFC found a place for it, and I’m glad they renewed it. Sometimes gentle humor is just right. B+.

music friday: the steve miller band, children of the future

For some time now, Phil Dellio and Scott Woods have worked on a fascinating Facebook thread, listing each of their top 100 songs of all time. I’d like to link to it, but I don’t really know how to do that for Facebook. Their lists are informed but idiosyncratic, which is to say they both know an awful lot about music, and they also know what they like. One of the more interesting aspects of their lists for me arises, I think, because they are a bit younger than I am, so there is a lot more music from the 1980s and little from the 1950s. I’ve very much enjoyed following the lists, commenting on them, and listening to the songs as they are posted (they are counting backwards and just made it to #16).

Phil’s choice for #16 is startling, and it raised a point regarding yours truly that seemed worth a Friday blog post. He chose “Thunk,” a forgotten song from Bark, the first (but not the last) Jefferson Airplane album I didn’t like. It became clear in Phil’s post and subsequent comments that he knew I’d be interested … he knows I’m a fan of the Airplane ... and Scott chimed in as well, also noting my love of the group. Both of them take it as a given that Jefferson Airplane are one of my favorite bands.

Which is odd, because I don’t know that they are. Yet it is easy for me to see why others might think this. I’m endlessly jabbering about my fetishization of 60s “underground radio” music, and I’ve said more than once that the Airplane were my favorites of the San Francisco bands of the day.

As I remember it … I’m not rewriting history in this case, this really is how I saw it, although the truth might have been different from my perception … the top bands in San Francisco at the time were the Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Steve Miller Band. Creedence blows all of these bands out of the water, but despite the fact that they were played on those FM radio stations, they seemed more like a hit machine than a group of psychedelic cowboys, so they don’t fit this rather narrow category of folk/blues-based psychedelia. Quicksilver and Steve Miller were a notch below the other three. By the end of 1967 and the Summer of Love, the Airplane had three albums (including the iconic Surrealistic Pillow), Big Brother had only one album but they’d played Monterey and Janis was already a big star, and the Dead, while they’d only released one disappointing album, were the band most identified with the psychedelia of the moment, partly because of their connection to Kesey and the Pranksters. Quicksilver and Steve Miller, on the other hand, didn’t put out an album until 1968.

Which were my favorites? The Dead were probably at the bottom, not because I didn’t like them, but because ultimately they were headed in a different direction than my taste preferences. I actually liked their first album, and a part of me thinks “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” is their best song. I liked the guitar work on Quicksilver’s first album quite a bit, but thought (and think) that their breakthrough, Happy Trails, is a mess, and the rest of their work includes some fine songs but nothing earthshaking. Big Brother had Janis, of course, and they had James Gurley, one of the greats of psychedelic guitar. They only released two albums, and Janis became bigger than the group, but I continue to believe Big Brother was her best backing band.

Then there was Jefferson Airplane. I can think of several reasons why they were my favorite. I spent the Summer of Love with my girlfriend, listening to Surrealistic Pillow over and over. I found the bizarre After Bathing at Baxter’s intriguing where the Dead’s more experimental efforts left me cold, and liked the band’s power in Crown of Creation. Volunteers was another favorite … I was ripe for its politics, the band was hot. But the biggest reason I loved them is probably Jack Casady and his bass playing on Bless Its Pointed Little Head, their live album from early 1969. As I took up the bass guitar, Casady became my god, and while the entire band does just fine on that live album, Casady is brilliant … it’s one of the greatest albums for bass playing in all of rock and roll.

So yes, I think I understand why people think I love Jefferson Airplane. I temper my current enthusiasm largely because I’m wary of overdoing the 60s psychedelic love. And while I might have liked the Airplane more than I liked the other SF bands, there were other bands of the time I liked more: Hendrix, the Velvet Underground, the Yardbirds, not to mention popular artists like Otis and Aretha. And I’m not sure any artist in any genre has ever made an album as good as Astral Weeks, which is the true cornerstone of my 60s passion.

I haven’t said much about Steve Miller yet, even though he’s supposed to be the featured artist this week. Miller was a bit of an outsider in the City. While a band like the Airplane had roots in folk music, Miller’s roots were in the blues … before coming to San Francisco, he had spent time in Chicago, playing with and sucking up influence from greats like Muddy Waters. When his band first started playing in San Francisco, they were called the Steve Miller Blues Band. My first rock concert, at the Fillmore during the Summer of Love, featured Miller and his band as the opening act for Eric Burdon and the Animals and Chuck Berry, for whom the Miller band played backup (that set later turned up on a Berry live album).


In early 1968, Miller and Quicksilver, along with Mother Earth, appeared on a soundtrack album to a documentary about hippies called Revolution. The Steve Miller Blues Band contributed three songs, an instrumental, “Mercury Blues” (which I believe Miller plays to this day), and an Isley Brothers cover, “Your Old Lady.” The latter featured some of the most screaming geetar work I’d ever heard … I don’t think I realized at the time it was Miller playing that stuff. He has never included this track on any of his various anthologies, and the original soundtrack is very hard to come by, so this remains an obscurity, but holy shit, that guitar.

I feel like Miller has said in interviews that when he came to San Francisco he was unimpressed with the musicianship. I could be wrong about this, but as I recall, Miller came in with his blues-based hot licks and found a bunch of stoners playing sloppy music. Whatever … Miller wasn’t going to be sloppy. The Airplane’s first album was essentially folk music, the Dead and Big Brother had their debuts botched, Quicksilver’s debut, which I liked, nonetheless immediately had people hoping for a live album to show what the band could “really” do.

But Miller? The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that as all the record companies swarmed over the Bay Area looking for their own psychedelic bands to get on their label, Miller held out until he got a very large advance. He then took the band to London, and had the first album produced by Glyn Johns, who later worked with such acts as The Beatles, the Who, the Eagles, and Eric Clapton. Not sloppy.

The second side of the subsequent album, Children of the Future, featured the lovely “Baby’s Calling Me Home” by band member Boz Scaggs, some punchy rock, the blues chestnut “Key to the Highway,” and a delightful take on Buster Brown’s R&B hit, “Fanny Mae.” This all could have fit in well with Sailor, their second album and the last to include Scaggs.

The first side, though, was something else entirely. It was a 17 1/2-minute psychedelic suite of five songs, two running less than a minute, with titles like “In My First Mind” and “The Beauty of Time Is That It’s Snowing (Psychedelic B.B.).” I suppose everyone imagines something different when they think of psychedelic music … “Dark Star,” maybe, or something from more recent revivals of the music. But for me, if I want to spend some time floating along in a nostalgic reverie of psychedelia, I will pretty much always listen to side one of Children of the Future. From the cacophonic opening, to the simple lyrics of the title track (“We are children of the future, wonder where this world is going to?”), to the 38 seconds of pop music, “Pushed Me to It,” and the 53 seconds of “You’ve Got the Power” (“To open the door”), to perhaps the most gently psychedelic of the songs, “In My First Mind” (“Singing a song of love, growing each day”) and the odd sound effects and blues licks, followed finally by the three-minute fade out that culminates with a chorus singing “We are children of the future” … in its use of a Mellotron and the sounds of sea gulls, the dippy lyrics, and the music, always the music, not sloppy, this is a trip you can rely on, it won’t turn bad.

The irony is that Steve Miller was the one who made this music. Miller, the blues guy who later became a pop star, Miller who got a big advance for his first album, Miller who didn’t like sloppy and hunted down one of the best producers in the biz … Steve Miller, not Jerry Garcia or James Gurley or John Cippolina but Steve Miller who crafted the best psychedelic music in one LP side.

He never matched it, never really tried, although the opening track of Sailor, “Song for Our Ancestors,” with the foghorn kicking off the album, came close. Scaggs left for a solo career, Miller cranked out a bunch of albums of varying worth (Number 5 was released in 1970 … that’s five albums in two years), after which he hit bottom with Rock Love. Then, in 1973, “The Joker,” and a few years later, Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams.

But once, there was a young Chicago blues-lover, and Children of the Future.

It’s hard to get this on YouTube, mostly because it’s broken into five parts, and also because you don’t get a lot of 17-minute videos on YouTube. But here are the final two parts, “In My First Mind” and “The Beauty of Time Is That It’s Snowing (Psychedelic B.B.)”:

Now for extras. Here’s the scene in Revolution where the Miller Blues Band plays “Your Old Lady.” It’s not the studio version that appears on the soundtrack, the sound is tinny, the guitar work not as impressive … in short, it doesn’t live up to the raves I wrote earlier. But it’s all we got, and hey, you get to watch dancing hippies!

Big Brother, “Ball and Chain”:

Quicksilver with “Mona”:

The Dead with “Know You Rider” (no lead-in song):

And finally, Jefferson Airplane. This is from Dick Cavett, just after Woodstock. “We Can Be Together” and “Volunteers.” On the first song, you can hear the word “fuck” (and later, “motherfucker”) for the first time ever on television (yes, that’s Joni Mitchell):

This is “Somebody to Love,” followed by a jam where you can enjoy the Jack and Jorma show (yes, that’s David Crosby):

what don’t i know

My favorite series of children’s books when I was growing up was, far and away, the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks. To give one example of the influence they had on my life, I never spent the night on a farm until a couple of years ago, and remain mostly ignorant about farm life, even though my daughter lives on one. And so, when I conjure a vision of farm life in my mind, I return to those Freddy books, which took place on the Bean Farm. Understand, the Bean Farm was populated by talking animals … Freddy was a pig who walked on two legs (I can’t remember how many of the other animals did the same) … that I base my understanding of farms on those books is a sign of my sheltered life.

In one of the books … I want to say it was my all-time favorite, Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars, but I really don’t know … Mr. Hercules, the circus strongman who has big muscles and a big heart but who isn’t the brightest fellow, decides he is going to figure out what he doesn’t know. This effort twists his mind as if he were trying to follow a Moebius strip, trapped within circular logic. If he can name something he doesn’t know, then he must know it. If he doesn’t know it, he won’t be able to think of it so he can add it to his list of what he doesn’t know.

Jonathan Bernstein has an interesting post today on his blog, “Outside the Political Junkie Bubble.” He cites a poll stating that “22% of all Americans believe that Obama health care law has already been repealed, and another 26% aren't sure whether it's been repealed or not.” He then notes that anyone reading his blog is likely a political junkie, and that “odds are good that you're at least in the top 10% of all Americans in political knowledge.” He says this not because political junkie are necessarily smarter than everyone else, but only to point out that we tend to know more about our obsessions than the average person.

He then offers a way to get a feeling for how most people see a particular item (in this case, politics). Most people are not obsessed with politics, for instance, which is one reason why most Americans are ill-informed about the health care law. They aren’t dumb, they just have other obsessions. And so:

[T]o get a sense of what politics is like for many Americans, I suggest thinking of something that you do encounter in some way all the time, but that you just have zero interest in. Perhaps it's current pop music, or HBO shows, or celebrities. Me? NASCAR, the NBA, and any games made since Missile Command and Stargate Defender. The idea is that I actually do encounter and, in a way, retain a fair amount of information about those things in the nature of headlines that I see but skip the stories, or references made in other things I do read or watch, or conversations I've had that veer off in that direction. It's not as if I know absolutely nothing. It's just that the stuff I've heard is not organized at all, and I'm sure I've picked up misinformation along the way, since I don't scrutinize any of it.

What don’t I know. If you are like me, you know what you know, and you often slip up and think you know what you don’t know. Making this assumption, you decide that anyone who is clueless about things you know is dumb. But they just have different obsessions. We need the humility to accept what we don’t know. And yes, that might be the first time in the 8+ years of this blog that I’ve made the case for being humble.

friday night lights

How do you say goodbye to something when you abandoned it long ago?

During its first season, Friday Night Lights was one of my favorite shows. Everything about it worked, so I feel a bit guilty singling out one thing over the others, but the relationship of Coach Taylor and his wife, played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, was arguably the best representation of married life I’ve ever seen on TV.

The second season, though, was worse than problematic. The show lost its way, and one ridiculous plot turn destroyed the season in my eyes. When the third season came around, the people in charge of the series agreed about that plot angle, and essentially acted like it never happened. Part of me appreciated the move … I wished it had never happened, myself. But I didn’t forget. Midway through the third season, I quit watching.

Now the series has finished its final season. It won’t air on NBC until April, due to an arrangement that allowed DirectTV to show the episodes first, but for those with the satellite system, the series is over. And so you can read bittersweet remembrances from the cast, crew, and fans who have already seen the season.

I don’t know what prompted me. It might be something as simple as getting a Roku box that let me stream Netflix on my big-screen. But I’ve started watching Friday Night Lights again, picking it up about where I quit a few years ago.

And it is wonderful. Time heals all wounds, I guess. I’m no longer obsessed with that stupid Season Two plot. And once I got past that, all of the things that made the show great were still waiting for me.

So, welcome back, Friday Night Lights. By the time your final season turns up on NBC, I’ll have caught up. I look forward to the bittersweet remembrances.


This being a story about my family, it’s possible, even likely, that I’ve written it all before. But something new showed up today, so I’ll repeat myself to give context.

My sister was browsing through, and found a draft registration card for my Spanish grandfather. This was 1917 or 1918, and he was in America, so I’m not sure why he had to register, but that just shows my ignorance. I can’t reproduce the document here … well, I’m not going to try, anyway, I didn’t pay the website so hands off it is. But I can describe what it says.

Outside of the signature, I think someone else filled out the form … and perhaps there was a translator, as well, I don’t know if my grandfather spoke much English in 1917.

At the top is his name, listed as Miguel Rubio Pena (no tilde, which is one reason I think someone other than my grandfather was writing). He already lived in Antioch. He was 35 years old, white (there were five choices, including Negro, Oriental, and two Indians that I can’t quite make out). He was an alien … it’s interesting, his country is listed as Espana (no tilde again), not Spain. He was a laborer in a factory (can’t read the name), and was married to Francisca EsPinosa (first name misspelled, “Es” added after the fact, one more piece in the he-didn’t-fill-it-out puzzle). At the bottom is his signature, and the handwriting matches another document I have with his signature, so it’s him this time. And his name is spelled with a tilde at last, Miguel Rubio Peña. (He was listed on the ship’s manifest for their voyage to California as “M.R. Peña.”)

That last word is interesting, because in the other signature I’ve seen, he signed his name simply Miguel Rubio. His tombstone reads “Rubio” as well (and the year of birth on the tombstone is 1884, while it’s 1882 on the draft card).

OK, that’s the new-to-us stuff … thanks to my sister for digging it up. Now comes the part where I tell an old story about my name.

Here’s how legend has it. My older brother’s middle name came from my mother’s side of the family, so when I was born, it was my dad’s turn. The story I was told, which is probably apocryphal, is that my mom called her mother-in-law on the phone and asked for her maiden name. My grandmother never lost her thick accent when speaking English, and whatever she said, my mom didn’t understand her but was embarrassed to ask her to repeat herself. So she guessed, and that’s why my middle name is Penner, a name that no one else in the family has ever had, far as I know.

The story never made a lot of sense … for one thing, my grandmother’s maiden name was Espinosa, and I don’t know how you get from that to Penner, no matter how hard it was to understand Grandma. But this Peña thing makes sense. My wife was the first one to figure this out, some years ago, and more and more I think she was right. My middle name is a jumbled English version of Peña.

Robin thinks I should have my name legally changed to Steven Peña Rubio, but that seems like a lot of trouble, just as it seemed like a lot of trouble when I thought perhaps I could apply for dual American/Spanish citizenship. So I’ll probably die with the middle name Penner. But I’ve always hated that name ... maybe someday.

episodes, season finale

Not sure why I’m posting this. The best thing about Episodes was Matt LeBlanc playing “Matt LeBlanc,” a self-centered asshole with an enormous cock. The rest was sporadically funny, and that’s about it. It passed the time OK, and if you didn’t watch it (I don’t know anyone but me who did), you didn’t miss anything. The finale was the best episode so far, which means perhaps Season Two will be better. Matt Zoller Seitz claims it’s the best show in the history of Showtime. He’s right that there’s more going on than appears on the surface … “LeBlanc,” for instance, isn’t just a self-centered asshole, and, in one of the better character developments on the show, Kathleen Rose Perkins’ seemingly ditzy midlevel executive/flunky shows she, like the show, has more to her than you might think after only one or two episodes. Tim Goodman also liked the show, but I suspect that’s in part because he shares the show’s low opinion of television executives.

I guess I’m writing this because I want to emphasize that this isn’t just a case of me not “getting” comedy. The show isn’t funny enough, and the more serious moments involve characters we don’t care about enough. If you come across it during channel surfing, it’s worth checking out a few minutes just to watch Matt LeBlanc … he actually is that good. But not good enough to convince me to give Episodes higher than a B-. Hold out for the upcoming season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, or watch Larry Sanders reruns.

what i watched last week

I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009). This movie recalls many films from the past. The presence of Gabriele Ferzetti and the setting of rich people being rich made me think of L’Avventura, Tilda Swinton says in an interview on the Blu-ray that she and director Luca Guadagnino thought it was Visconti on acid, and many reviewers mentioned Douglas Sirk. I’d say the critics came closest … it soon became clear that I Am Love was nothing like Antonioni’s classic, and while I can see the Visconti reference, I’m not sure Swinton needed the “on acid” qualifier. But the lushness of the photography, the ripeness of the music, and the submerged sexuality are all reminiscent of Sirk. If, like me, you think Tilda Swinton can do no wrong, you’ll admire her work here (she plays a Russian who marries into an Italian family, and apparently, she didn’t speak either Italian or Russian before making the film, so she learned them both, and then spoke Italian with a Russian accent). She’s an outsider, because she’s Russian, because the family into which she marries is insular, but really, all you have to do is cast Tilda Swinton and you have your outsider … her ethereal looks are something more than human. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design. #231 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century, which is stretching it a bit. 

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927). A lot of firsts for this movie. It was the first movie to use the Fox Movietone sound system … it isn’t a talkie, but there is a synchronized soundtrack and the occasional sound effect. Janet Gaynor’s work here and in two other movies earned her the very first Academy Award for Best Actress. The film itself won the Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production award … there were two Best Picture awards that first year, the only year that this particular award was given, making Sunrise the once and forever King of Best Uniquely Artistic Film. Even now, it gets “firsts” … it was the first silent film to be released on Blu-ray. But is it any good? It’s a hard film to evaluate on one viewing, since there are a lot of touches that can be appreciated once you seen it once and get the basic “plot.” There are some stunning sequences, and it’s fascinating to see Murnau’s vision set free in Hollywood with a sizable budget. The plot is Bunyanesque (John, not Paul), with characters named The Man and The Wife and The Woman from the City, and that’s not a good thing. And many of the trend-setting Murnau touches are ordinary to us, more than 80 years later. Ah, but those touches! #12 on the TSPDT list of the 1000 best films of all time.

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008). A remarkable, ambitious film that I can’t recommend to everyone, Hunger is brutal and graphic, artful and unique, with at least one scene destined to become a classic. It is a film about the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, but this is definitely a case where the simple description leads you nowhere. Sands doesn’t show up until a third of the way through, and the hunger strike itself takes place only in the final third. Some of the artistic decisions don’t seem to have a point to them, but the overall feel of director Steve McQueen’s work here suggests he got exactly what he wanted from Hunger. Since he succeeds wildly on most levels, he earns the benefit of the doubt. The camerawork throughout is fascinating … perhaps too much, it may draw our attention to itself … with a mostly static camera. The showpiece is a long, medium-shot, one-take conversation between Sands and a priest that goes on for about 15 minutes. In that scene, Sands presents his case for a hunger strike, and the priest tries to dissuade the prisoner. Much of the film is presented in a rather dispassionate way … what we see inspires deep emotions from the audience, to be sure, but somehow McQueen maintains a certain distance from the material. #129 on the TSPDT list of the 250 best films of the 21st century.

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959). I’m not as excited about Sirk as are his aficionados, but I’ve enjoyed some of his pictures. This one, though, isn’t really one of them. It’s recognizably his, the way that Man’s Favorite Sport? is recognizably Howard Hawks. That wasn’t enough for me. The best thing about the movie is Susan Kohner as the African-American trying to pass as white. There is an edge to her work that plays well off the icy beauty of Lana Turner and the too-perfect mom played by Juanita Moore. #233 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time.