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November 2012
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January 2013

what i watched last year

A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Thus, the average for the 113 movies I rated in 2012 is just over 7 out of 10.


"Duck Amuck"
Harlan County, USA
The Last Picture Show
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Navigator


The Awful Truth
Black Narcissus
Dazed and Confused
The Grapes of Wrath
Jackie Brown
The Killing
The Last Laugh
The Long Goodbye
Winter's Bone


An Angel at My Table
Bigger Than Life
The Cabin in the Woods
F for Fake
In Cold Blood
Island of Lost Souls
Jane Eyre
The Last Metro
My Week with Marilyn
Nobody Knows
A propos de Nice
Rosemary’s Baby
Saving Private Ryan
The Social Network
This Is England
Viva Las Vegas
You Can Count on Me


The Avengers
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Black Sunday
The Blues Brothers
Brooklyn Boheme
Breakfast at Tiffany's
A Bucket of Blood
Burn, Witch, Burn
Carnival of Souls
Cinema Paradiso
The Damned United
Five Minutes of Heaven
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Green Snake
Howl's Moving Castle
The Ides of March
In a Better World
A Letter to Three Wives
Margin Call
The Mummy
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
La Ronde
The Reckless Moment
The Squid and the Whale
Star Trek
That Obscure Object of Desire
Three Colors: Blue
Three Colors: Red
Tiny Furniture
2 Days in New York
Up in the Air


An Affair to Remember
Albert Nobbs
Circus of Horrors
Corridors of Blood
Damsels in Distress
Dead Poets Society
Distant Voices, Still Lives
Drive, He Said
God Bless America
House on Haunted Hill
The Ladykillers
Moonrise Kingdom
My Life As a Dog
The Outlaw Josey Wales
The Parallax View
Paranoid Park
Paranormal Activity
Premium Rush
The Royal Tenenbaums
Snow on tha Bluff
Three Colors: White
Withnail and I
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes


Fahrenheit 451
Zontar: The Thing from Venus


Attack of the Puppet People
The Brain That Wouldn't Die


A Safe Place

what i watched last week

Three Colors: Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994). And so I finish the Three Colors Trilogy. I suppose I liked this one the best, but “liked” is the operative word here. I didn’t love it. The two leads (Irène Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are good, and while the various plots are confusing at the beginning, it’s rather charming the way they come together in the end (and also charming the way Kieslowski brings together the main characters from all the films in the trilogy at the end). I said after the first film, Blue, that I reserved the right to raise my grade if I ever saw it again … I definitely feel like I’m missing something. #471 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940). The movie is so entrenched in the film canon that it’s become difficult over time to remember any differences between it and the equally-praised Steinbeck novel. John Ford’s reputation is probably better than Steinbeck’s at the moment, but that kind of thing is always subject to change. Tom Joad is one of the great characters of American culture, and Henry Fonda does a perfect job with the part, even if, like his daughter Jane, you can sometimes see him figuring out how to best play the character … he’s not a method actor. John Carradine is the surprise here; his hammy acting usually draws attention to itself in bad ways, but he’s much more subtle and moving as Preacher Casy. (Carradine has always fascinated me, due mostly to his claim that he was in more movies than any other actor. Early in his career, he was in A-pictures like this one and Ford’s Stagecoach, but by the 1960s, he appeared in one crappy horror movie after another. While he was still a favorite of Ford’s, turning up in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and Cheyenne Autumn, other titles from the 60s include Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Las Vampiras, The Astro-Zombies, and Blood of Dracula’s Castle.) Jane Darwell won the acting Oscar as Ma Joad, and she’s not nearly as awful as Pauline Kael claimed (“impossibly fraudulent” was her phrase), but Judith Anderson in Rebecca should have won that award. There is so much to like about The Grapes of Wrath (Gregg Toland needs to be mentioned), and I can’t argue with those who would call it one of the greats, but I’m hesitant to go that far. #124 on the TSPDT list. 9/10.

Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947). The stylized look of the film is striking, and the atmosphere of repressed eroticism is extremely intense. It’s all in the service of a story about trying to remake the world by separating yourself from it. The separation doesn’t work, and the contrasting acting styles of Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron show how different people react to their failures. Byron gets the more showy role, and she makes the most of it, but, as with the film as a whole, the lighting, camerawork, and directing do a lot to make the actors’ performances so good (Byron said that Powell “gave me half of my performance with the lighting”). Not everything works; Jean Simmons as a dark-skinned native looks weird, and her subplot isn’t much, either. But once you’ve seen Byron applying lipstick in close-up, you’ll forgive everything else. #145 on the TSPDT list. 9/10.

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973). 9/10.

by request: the long goodbye (robert altman, 1973)

When I began the “By Request” series earlier this year, I didn’t yet have any requests from readers. Some people, though, had expressed an interest in the movies that almost made my Facebook Fave Fifty list, so I added a “request” category I called “51-79” to reflect where those 29 films would fit if my Facebook list had gone to #79 instead of #50. The Long Goodbye was one of the very last cuts from my list: it’s #52.

I consider myself an Altman fan, yet none of his films made my Fave Fifty. And I find it interesting that The Long Goodbye is apparently my favorite Robert Altman film, because the first time I saw it, I was so angry at the film’s conclusion that I stomped out of the theater and fumed for quite awhile.

To understand this, it helps to know a few things. One is that I spent a chapter of my dissertation on Raymond Chandler. Another is that I tended to buy into Chandler’s bruised romanticism. Finally, it’s safe to say that Robert Altman (and screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who Altman credits on a DVD extra as coming up with the ending) was not with me in my admiration.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate what Altman was up to in The Long Goodbye. And there is Elliott Gould’s great portrayal of Marlowe. And there are all the oddball casting choices that ended up working just fine. A list of some of those actors will bring memories to those who remember the 70s, while others will scratch their heads: Nina van Pallandt, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, Jim Bouton, Jack Riley, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Here is some of what I wrote about the movie for my dissertation (this was 1997):

In the early 1970s, Robert Altman directed a film version of The Long Goodbye that has inspired more outright hatred from Chandler aficionados than any other manifestation of Marlowe. Altman's film begins with a rumpled Philip Marlowe, played by then-popular Elliott Gould, being woken by his pet cat at 3:00 in the morning. Altman instructed Gould to play Marlowe as if he were Rip Van Winkle, and beginning with this opening scene, Marlowe most definitely appears to have been asleep for the twenty years since The Long Goodbye was written. He drives a vintage auto and dresses in a suit and tie (both of them bad ones) while everyone else drives and dresses in 70s Southern California Hip.

Altman/Gould's Marlowe is always a step or two behind everyone else. Like Chandler's version, this Marlowe lives by a code, and like Chandler's Marlowe (at least the one who appears in The Long Goodbye), that code is out of step with the times. But Altman doesn't want Marlowe to retain even the shattered remnants of romanticism with which Chandler's novel ends. "I see Marlowe the way Chandler saw him," said Altman, "a loser. But a real loser, not the false winner that Chandler made out of him. A loser all the way." Altman, an inspired if erratic film maker, succeeds in his goal of making Chandler's great hero something other than a false winner, but in his own way, Altman allows Marlowe a victory that Chandler, who married Marlowe off in a fragment written just before he died, could never carry off.

In Altman's Long Goodbye, Terry Lennox turns out to be the actual murderer of his wife Sylvia. Although his betrayal of Marlowe is similar to that in the novel (using his friend to save his ass), the additional crime of murder makes Terry out to be far more venal than Chandler's Terry. And the movie Terry, in tune with the 1970s in ways Marlowe can barely imagine, is also more open, even casual, about his exploitation of Marlowe; when confronted about his actions at the end of the film, Terry freely confesses his abuse of their relationship, saying "That's what friends are for, right?"

This carefree description of friendship exposes Marlowe as a hopeless romantic: the friend for whom he has suffered has not been worth the trouble, the codes Marlowe lives by are ignored by everyone but himself. As Lennox tells him, nobody cares, to which Marlowe/Gould replies, "Nobody cares but me." And then he shoots Terry Lennox in the gut.

That Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe would never resort to such an action is beside the point, or rather, it is exactly and entirely the point. Altman, who does not want to believe in Chandler's romanticizing of the genre, will not allow his Marlowe to be a "false winner," someone who walks away, shattered but with a thread of romantic hope. With those gunshots, Altman frees Philip Marlowe from his past, from his codes, from his romanticism. He allows Marlowe to be a true winner, a winner over the oppressions of romanticism. Rip Van Winkle finally wakes up.

I didn’t give ratings in those days, but I imagine I would have given The Long Goodbye 1/10 the first time I saw it. By the time I made my Facebook list, it was up to 8/10. And watching it again, I’m raising the grade again. #520 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 movies of all time. 9/10.

music friday: the drifters, "save the last dance for me"

Sometimes you’ll hear/see a song in a movie or TV show (or commercial, for that matter) and forever after, the song will be connected in your mind to that new artifact. Think “Singin’ in the Rain” after watching A Clockwork Orange, or Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and that Volkswagen advertisement. Often, perhaps usually, the connection is something other than pleasant … I don’t like thinking of commercials when I’m listening to music. But then there are the times when a great song gets attached to something lovely, and I don’t mind a bit.

“Save the Last Dance for Me” was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who together wrote many, many hits, including “A Teenager in Love”, “Viva Las Vegas” and lots of other Elvis songs, and several for the Drifters, such as “This Magic Moment”. The recording was produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The Drifters had a long history marked by many personnel changes and battles over who owned the name of the group. Singing lead at the time of “Save the Last Dance for Me” was Ben E. King, perhaps best known for “Stand by Me”. Among the artists who have recorded the song: Jay and the Americans, Buck Owens, Ike & Tina Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Harry Nilsson, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Michael Bublé, even Bruce Willis.

The American version of Queer As Folk lasted for five seasons and was a fairly substantial hit for Showtime. As is common with these things, fans of the U.K. original didn’t much care for the U.S. remake. The original only lasted 10 episodes, so no matter how closely the U.S. version stuck to the original, its 83 episodes were going to take the characters beyond their U.K. counterparts. And in truth, the later seasons weren’t as good as the first ones.

This video comes near the end of the final episode of Season One. You can pick up on the romantic gist of what’s going on, but just in case, the young blond boy is at his high school prom with his friend; the love of his life, who is more than ten years older, makes a surprise appearance and they share a dance together. I could watch this over and over, although it’s a bit of a cheat … the season didn’t end with this scene, but instead with a horrific cliffhanger where the young boy is severely beaten by gay-bashing classmates. Still, one can always pretend the season ended when this video ended. (Trivia note: the actors who played the older man and the young boy in the U.K. version were Aiden Gillen, known in America for his roles as Carcetti in The Wire and Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, and Charlie Hunnam, best known here as Jax from Sons of Anarchy.)

how i wrote in 1987

Continuing from this post, here is the third paragraph of my honors thesis for my American Studies B.A.:

American culture has always been fixated on the mechanism of scapegoating. That which we fear is that which is closest to ourselves. The best way to separate ourselves from the evil is to create, through a scapegoat mechanism, a sharp contrast between our good selves and the Other that threatens our stability. So America has a long history of demonizing our enemies, developing strict standards for good behavior and thrusting our inner turmoil onto social groups, Others, that can be identified as separate. We fear evil because it is us. And so we categorize, in order to recognize the evil and to confirm the good. If white men are good, then men of color are bad. Women are witches, men their opposites. Americans separate themselves from the Other, hoping desperately to establish a “good” national persona by maximum contrast to that which disturbs by its closeness: the evil we can never escape.

movies, 2011

As is usually the case, I’m at least a year behind on recent movies, so it’s silly to make a Top Ten list for the current year. Therefore, I end up posting a year-before Top Ten list (last year I did 2010 and chose Winter’s Bone as the best movie of 2010).

This year I’m going to make a Top Five, because there were too many movies tied for 6th place. One problem with these lists is that I’m at the mercy of MovieLens, which decides which movies are from 2011. Thus, I could be missing something that is listed as coming out in 2010 or 2012 but is actually from 2011. Anyway, here are my Top Five movies of 2011, in alphabetical order, which pretty much matches how I’d order them myself:

  1. Attack the Block (Joe Cornish). “While Attack the Block delivers big time on action, still finding time within its brief 88-minute running time for character development, it is also hilarious.”
  2. Incendies (Denis Villenueve). “Complicated, slow-moving drama that feels a bit like Hitchcock without all the shtick.”
  3. Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga). “As much as possible, Fukunaga makes this just another movie, and I mean that as a compliment.”
  4. My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis). “Barely more than a trifle, but Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe is so good, she overcomes any quibbles.”
  5. Super 8 (J.J. Abrams).

(My least-favorite of the 2011 movies I’ve seen: The Tree of Life.)

my xmas story

Last night (Xmas Eve), I was settling down to bed at my daughter’s house, where we were spending the night. I got out my Nexus 7 to look for something to listen to … I’ve had noise going while I slept since I was a kid, nowadays I use a “pillow speaker” (a small foam earphone) so Robin isn’t bothered by the sound. I found the app for the Internet radio I have at home. It’s a Squeezebox Radio, but Logitech has discontinued the line in favor of … well, I’m not sure, but they gave me the opportunity to upgrade the software on my Squeezebox to match the new thingie, which I did, about a week ago. I haven’t figured it all out, but I have an Android app for it on the Nexus and on my phone. I thought I’d use that app to access something to listen to, but when I started it up, I couldn’t hear anything.

When I was a kid, we’d take trips to Santa Cruz, a couple of hours from our house, and I never understood why we couldn’t hear the little AM station near our home … it always came in loud and clear, and I didn’t understand about how radio worked, I just assumed that particular channel came in wherever you were. I had a similar thought about the Internet radio, and laughed to myself. Of course I couldn’t hear anything … I was in Sacramento, trying to access the router in my attic in Berkeley.

So I switched to something that worked better, and forgot all about it.

We got home to Berkeley around 11:30 on Xmas morning. When we opened the door, we could hear voices talking very loud. It gave us a bit of a fright, but I quickly identified the noise as coming from … the Internet radio.

Turns out the app on my Nexus is actually a remote control for the radio. I was indeed able to get to the router in my attic. When I booted the app on my Nexus, and no sound came out, I cranked up the volume as high as it would go. Meanwhile, back in Berkeley, my actions had turned the radio on full blast, where it stayed for half a day, entertaining the cats, until we came home and shut it off.

Just more adventures in modern technology.

rosemary's baby (roman polanski, 1968)

I’m not sure whether to call this a Request (a friend came over to watch a movie, I handed him several, he picked this one out of the pack), or a What I Watched (I haven’t had many this month, due to a variety of other things going on). So I’ll just give it a post of its own.

I’ve liked Roman Polanski’s movies for so long I can’t be sure Rosemary’s Baby was the first that got my attention. I saw his first feature, Knife in the Water, early on, and Repulsion as well, although I don’t think I liked that one very much when I first saw it (I’ve changed my mind over the years). Macbeth was the first time I was really impressed … I don’t know what I’d think if I saw it today, but in 1971, I thought it was the shit. One thing about Polanski is that while he’s had the usual ups and downs, he has retained the ability to make excellent movies, even as he approaches his 80s. (I’m a fan of at least two of his 21st-century films, The Pianist and The Ghost Writer.) And he has the truly loony The Tenant on his resume, along with his crowning achievement, Chinatown.

I don’t think Rosemary’s Baby fits amongst the top of the Polanski list, good as it is, but that reflects the handful of really good ones at the top. Rosemary’s Baby’s horror sneaks up on you in a very effective way, and I find Ruth Gordon much funnier here than in Harold and Maude, a movie I never much liked. Perhaps it’s that Gordon is ultimately malevolent in this one, which is about how I felt about her Maude (who was supposed to be a great free spirit). It’s appropriate that the movie takes its time, but it feels slow in the beginning, even if that’s the intention. Like Repulsion and The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby is extremely claustrophobic, and also like those movies, it’s not entirely clear if the lead character is totally sane (even if their paranoia is justified). There’s plenty of ambiguity, which is a good thing.

It was accidental, but I kinda like that we watched this movie about the birth of the devil child so close to Xmas Day. It’s not really a Xmas movie, but I can’t watch Die Hard every year, can I? #209 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

the third annual karen sisco award

[The introduction is largely copied from previous years.]

Two years ago, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Previous winners were Terriers (2010) and Lights Out (2011). This year, there are only two candidates, in part because I quit watching most shows long before they were cancelled. Of the two I stuck with, one is still on the air, with three last episodes to burn off. Last Resort is/was Shawn Ryan’s latest series. Ryan is best-known for creating The Shield, although more relevant here is that he was the showrunner for Terriers, so he’s been in Karen Sisco territory before. Last Resort is a pretty good show that didn’t seem to have much chance at longevity, since the basic plot involved a rogue captain taking his nuke-carrying submarine to an island in the Indian Ocean and threatening to launch those nukes if people didn’t listen to him. His enemies are rogue elements in the government of the United States … lotta rogues here. It’s a fascinating premise, but how can you make it last, season after season? At some point, the U.S. and the sub are going to have to make amends or shoot it out. We won’t know how the series will end until January, but it might be best for Last Resort, if not for the people who worked on it, that closure will come in the truncated first/only season.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s the right fit for a Sisco. Terriers and Lights Out deserved a bigger audience because they were excellent shows, and while both had endings which were satisfying enough (Lights Out in particular knocked it out of the park with the last scene), there was no reason they couldn’t have gone on for another season.

The other candidate for the 2012 Sisco carries a bit of irony, since I wrote back in March that the show was “not a candidate for a Karen Sisco Award”. The reasoning behind that statement revolved around the unfortunate circumstances under which the series was cancelled. It was successful enough in its first season, it had a lot of big names attached to it (names like Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon, and Joan Allen, and behind the scenes, David Milch and Michael Mann), and it was thus a prestige series. It was actually already in production for a second season when the word came down that it was cancelled. Luck wasn’t cancelled because it was unappreciated, and it wasn’t dumped because the folks at HBO didn’t realize what a good show they had. No, Luck was cancelled because too many horses were dying during the production of the show.

I’m not here to decide whether those deaths were reason enough to cancel the series. What matters is that it was cancelled, it was already good, it looked to get better, and now all we’ll ever have is that one season. As I wrote when describing the finale, “Grade for series: B+. Projected grade for the Season Two we’ll never see: A-.” That sounds a lot like Terriers and Lights Out and Karen Sisco.

So there you go: Luck is the winner of the 2012 Karen Sisco Award. The best way you can honor these fine television series is by watching them on demand or Netflix or wherever. You won’t be sorry.

Karen Sisco Award Winners:

  • 2010: Terriers
  • 2011: Lights Out
  • 2012: Luck