Recently, the They Shoot Pictures Don't They website had a poll where users listed their 25 favorite films. They received 1,983 replies, with a total of 5,945 films chosen. They have begun posting the top 1005, spreading things out to keep us in suspense. In the meantime, here were my 25 choices. Each selection received one point, so there was no need to rank them. I'll list mine in alphabetical order:
They Shoot Pictures, Don't They have released a spreadsheet with the votes for all 5,945 films that received votes, so I can now check to see how my stragglers did. As I noted earlier, 8 of my 25 choices did not make the list of the top 1005. Here is how they fared:
I hadn't seen any films directed by Lynn Shelton, although I've enjoyed her work on TV series like Mad Men, Master of None, Shameless, Casual, and GLOW. She has a solid connection with her actors, which is very useful in a film that is apparently largely improvised (the listed writers are Shelton and Michael Patrick O'Brien). It's not entirely surprising that this cast works well with improvisation, as most of them have roots in that style. In fact, the cast is so good that it's not easy to guess that the dialogue is improvised.
Beyond that, actors like Marc Maron and Michaela Watkins are excellent, and I'm always happy to see Toby Huss. Others, like Jon Bass and Jillian Bell, are also good, although I wasn't sure I had seen any of their work (turns out I have, but apparently they didn't make a big impression on me).
I wanted to like Sword of Trust ... it's Shelton's last film, as she died in 2020, and I'm a fan of Maron, who was in a relationship with Shelton at the end and who has spoken movingly of her. But the best I can say is that I didn't dislike it. There's a shaggy-dog feel to the plot, and the film relies a lot on the individual scenes, which I didn't always connect with. There is something timely about the way Sword of Trust shows us conspiracy theorists (did you know the South won the Civil War?). I never quit rooting for the movie, and its short running time meant it was over before I lost interest. Everyone does good work, but overall, I wanted a little more.
About a month ago, I took part in a poll at the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website where users listed their 25 favorite films. They received 1,983 replies, with a total of 5,945 films chosen. The final results of that poll have been posted. I find things like this endlessly fascinating. If you are like me, you'll want to check out the site, where you can see lists like "Ten Highest Ranked Films in the 1,000 Greatest Films List That Are Not in the 1,005 Film Favourites List", "Ten Lowest Ranked 21st Century Films in the 21st Century’s Most Acclaimed Films List That Are in the 1,005 Film Favourites List", and "Leading 25 Directors (Total Votes)". I may delve into this further in a later post, but for now, here again are the 25 films I chose, listed by their ranking on the final list. First, films that did not make the Top 1005:
We're up to 104 films in our weekly Geezer Cinema, going back to July of 2019, and Steven Soderbergh becomes the first director to get four movies on the list. (Earlier choices were Contagion, Logan Lucky, and Haywire.)
I've seen nine of his movies, now, and I guess you could say I like him. Toss in his TV series, The Knick, and count me impressed, even if I've never found any of his pictures superb. (In my recently-updated ranking of directors, he finished #52.)
I know more informed people than I who can recognize a Soderbergh film as soon as they start watching. I can't say the same, but only because I sometimes forget to pay attention to directorial style. I will say that I am rarely lost in a Soderbergh movie ... OK, the plot of No Sudden Move is complicated to say the least, but Soderbergh always makes sure you know where people are in a scene, a talent that is more rare than it should be. I've assumed that actors like him, because he always seems to have these amazing casts, the kind you don't get if you have a bad rep. No Sudden Move's cast includes Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Ray Liotta, Jon Hamm, Brendan Fraser, Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Julia Fox, Frankie Shaw, Bill Duke, even an uncredited Matt Damon. It must be said that there is an extreme male tilt to that list. (He did direct Julia Roberts in her Oscar-winning role, and managed to get a decent performance out of Gina Carano, a former mixed-martial artist in her first leading role.)
I watched a few interviews with the cast of No Sudden Move, and I was taken with how often they would mention the experience of having a director right there as you acted. (Soderbergh famously does his own camerawork and editing, using pseudonyms.) They all felt this helped them ... that's not something I would have thought of on my own.
There isn't anything new about No Sudden Move, but what's there is well-done. It's easy to recommend to anyone who likes noirish movies with great casts.
Finally, I have to mention this. I'm going to quote Jeffrey Wells, since he raises this issue while adding something I also found odd: few to no critics even mentioned this (link also includes images):
Soderbergh apparentlyused some kind of spherical wide-angled lens thatoccasionallydelivers what looks like a 2.2:1 aspect ratio, and which compresses images on the sides.
The No Sudden Move visuals also struck me as similar to the distinctive framings that were seen in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s The Current War, which was shot by Chung Chung-hoon. Lots of headroom and elbow room. Objects squeezed on the sides.
And yet very few critics have even mentioned this curious (or certainly noteworthy) visual approach.
I noticed this. I didn't think it mattered, and I wouldn't avoid the film just because some of it looks slightly off. I don't know why Soderbergh did it.
I decided to revisit this film about the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali. It was as engaging as I remembered, although flawed enough to prevent it from being a classic.
I have told the story many times of our experience the night of that big fight. At the time of the match (October, 1974), we lived over Moe's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, half a block from People's Park. Telegraph Ave. runs for more than 4 miles from Oakland to Berkeley, ending at the UC Berkeley campus ... we lived a few blocks from campus. Haste Street ran north of People's Park. Our apartment was on the Telegraph side, and we spent many an afternoon just taking in the street life from our window (if memory serves, we were on the second floor). The fight ended ... oh, around 9:00 at night our time, give or take. I hadn't found Berkeley to be a big boxing town, but I recall a few car horns being blown as the news of Ali's victory was revealed. We could hear some serious crowd noise, and took to our window to see what was up. To our right, we saw an impromptu parade of people heading towards campus, chanting "A-LI! A-LI!" While our view was blocked by buildings, we could also sense a different impromptu parade of people on Haste Street, heading towards Telegraph, also chanting "A-LI!" Neither group knew about the other, although we had an excellent view from our window. The Haste Street crowd reached Telegraph just as the Telegraph crowd arrived a block from Haste. Upon discovering each other, the chanting, doubled in number of participants and multiplied immensely by the ecstatic recognition of the other group, become wonderfully loud.
I tell this story to help illustrate the way Ali was always more than just a boxer. Among many things, he was a folk hero to many in Berkeley.
When We Were Kings does an excellent job of showing this aspect of Ali. The people of Africa loved him, and he was happy to play that up. He was one of the most famous people in the world, and especially in the U.S., his story was well-known. When We Were Kings is so enamored of Ali that the film borders on hagiography. And it's easy to understand why. While George Foreman eventually became a beloved figure, in 1974 he was a mostly-silent man who let his fists talk for him, while Ali was irrepressible from the first time he came to the public's attention. In short, Ali was the perfect charismatic figure to place at the center of a film. Foreman was not. Given the historical fact that Ali won the fight, and that he was such a great screen presence, it makes perfect sense that When We Were Kings centers on Ali.
There are attempts to place the story in a wider context, mostly provided by interviews conducted in the mid-90s. A good portion of the interviewees are white, and while they have bonafide credentials (Norman Mailer wrote a book about the fight, George Plimpton covered it at the time, Thomas Hauser has written several books on Ali), it feels odd to see these old white guys pontificating about the great hero of African-Americans. Spike Lee is also interviewed, and all of these men have interesting things to say. I just wish there was more Spike and less Norman.
When We Were Kings won the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary (to be honest, I've never seen any of the other nominees).
[This is the third in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 17 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]
I last wrote about Before Sunset in 2011, when I said that since it had stood the test of time, I was raising my rating from 8 to 9. Before Midnight had not yet come out, but later, when I saw that third film in the thus-far trilogy, I felt it was even better than the first two. Part of that was the accumulated experience of the three, and I think in a rating sense that I found this perhaps too attractive ... if Midnight was a 10, and Sunrise was an 8, then clearly Sunset was a 9. There is a certain logic to this, although it also shows the silliness involved in ratings movies at all. I think I'd give the trilogy a 10, even if the average rating for the three is 9.
And seeing Before Sunset for a third time, I'm still content with that 9 rating. There is something to be said for that accumulation. I realize that if they ever make a fourth film in the series, my rating system will break because I can't give the new movie an 11.
I recently updated a Letterboxd list that ranked directors by the ratings I gave their movies. Richard Linklater is #36 on that list, between William Wyler and Michael Haneke. (In an earlier version he was #35 ... Wyler has since passed him, although I'm not sure why.)
My earlier reviews of Before Sunset covered most of what I thought. I did make a couple of new-to-me observations this time. The Before series is rather like a fictional version of the Up series, documentaries which looked at the same people in 7-year increments. In the Before movies, we catch up with Celine and Jesse every nine years, but of course, they aren't real people, so Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke can play with the characters' biographies in ways you can't do in a documentary. Also, there is a scene that seems to foreshadow Before Midnight, although obviously this wasn't actually happening since that movie hadn't even been planned when Sunset was made.
In terms of accumulated power, the greatest scene in all three movies is the long stretch near the end of Before Midnight, when the two, married by that point, have a terrible fight that puts everything on the table. Watching Sunset again, I saw premonitions of that scene in this one.
I would welcome a fourth installment, although it's probably too late to make the usual nine-year deadline. There is talk of another sequel, but the possibility seems mixed. Even if the fourth film never happens, the Before trilogy stands as a great achievement. Throw in Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, and Boyhood, and you see why I rate Linklater so highly.
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015). This fine film deserves its own post, and originally, it had one, but my computer crashed, and now I'm just working from memory. Suffice to say that this was my first film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I'm ready to see more. The cinematography is gorgeous (by Ping Bin Lee), and while there are very few closeups and plenty of long takes, The Assassin is never static. I had seen this film called "Kubrickian", which isn't necessarily a point in its favor for me, but I can see why people make the comparison. Kubrick movies are always beautiful to look at, as well, and he's not afraid of a "slow" movie. The primary reason I found Hou's film superior to anything Kubrick gave us in his last 30 years is that Hou cared about actors. In the case of The Assassin, we are rewarded with many award-winning performances, especially from Shu Qi, who plays the title character with heartbreaking subtlety. She also conveys confidence in the fighting scenes, even though she came to the film untrained in fighting. #87 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
Geezer Cinema: The Little Things (John Lee Hancock, 2021). Denzel Washington plays a cop with a past, and if you've seen any other films with that description, you've already seen The Little Things. There are a couple of reasons the movie is a bit better than the others. The cast is full of interesting actors (Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Glenn Morshower, Maya Kazan). And while The Little Things deals with a serial killer, Hancock does not turn the killings into something enjoyable for voyeurs. It's not enough to turn this into a great movie, but it helps. Here are the first ten minutes:
The first Police Story was Jackie Chan's favorite of his movies, and it's a good one, to be sure. Police Story 3, which goes by Supercop, is my favorite of the series, mostly because of the awesome Michelle Yeoh. Police Story 2 falls in the middle, not just in the order they were made, but in the quality it offers. It's passable, with a couple of Chan's set pieces, as usual, but it falls far short of the other two.
First, to address some confusing matters, there are several different versions of Police Story 2 out there. (This is often the case with Hong Kong films when they are released to the American market.) For brevity, I'll stick to the two basic versions on the Criterion Blu-ray, the original Hong Kong version and the longer version ... not sure what to call it, to be honest. That version gets a 4K restoration from Criterion, while the original, which is presented as an extra on the Blu-ray, is "a new digital transfer of the Hong Kong-release version of Police Story 2 ... created in 2K resolution from a subtitled 35mm print supplied by the American Genre Film Archive. The transfer is presented with minimal restoration, leaving scratches and damaged and missing frames intact, to convey the character of the film element." I didn't want to watch a scratchy print with burned-in subtitles, so I opted for the longer one. Also, the people I was with wanted the English-dub, which didn't suck, but which resulted in things like Chan's character, Chan Ka Kui, being called "Jackie Chan".
Most of Police Story 2 is, well, kinda boring. Chan movies always revolve around the set pieces, but there are only two memorable ones in this two-hour version, so there are some dry spells. Those set pieces are classic, no problem there.
Also, the great Maggie Cheung is less annoying here than she was in PS1 and PS3. She also fell victim to something Chan goes through in virtually every movie: she got hurt in a stunt, bad enough that she couldn't finish the movie (her part was played by a different actress who didn't show her face).
Police Story 2 is not the place to start if you want to see what all the hubbub is about Jackie Chan. I'd go with either of the other Police Story movies, either of the Drunker Master movies, or maybe Armour of God 2: Operation Condor (which goes by many names). If you are an American, I'd go with Supercop.
You can say about most Stanley Kubrick movies that they will be made in an exacting manner, that they will look good, and they will get people's attention in ways other filmmakers do not. Honestly, I have no idea why the latter is true. My father-in-law once got me a book about Kubrick. It was a thoughtful gift ... he knew movies were one of my interests. And there was no reason why he would know that I am not the biggest Kubrick fan. The best I can figure is he decided to get a book about movies, saw Kubrick's face on the cover, recognized the name, and bought it. Because Stanley Kubrick was well-known.
Why? When I think of directors the average moviegoer might know by name, I think of Tarantino, Scorsese, Eastwood I suppose, Spielberg. I wouldn't be surprised if that hypothetical moviegoer were ask to name a director, they would say "Hitchcock". The Best Director Oscar has seen some welcome diversity in recent years, but are those directors household names? Chloé Zhao, Bong Joon-Ho, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Damien Chazelle, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ang Lee ... some of my favorite directors are in that list, but if my father-in-law were still alive, I doubt he would think to get me a book about any of them.
But Stanley Kubrick is a movie director that people have heard of.
A Clockwork Orange certainly got people's attention in 1971. It was a box office success. It got 4 Oscar nominations. The look of the film still grabs the eye. And Malcolm McDowell is iconic. It was Kubrick's first film after 2001, and I suspect people were ready for a masterpiece. The movie is unforgettable in many ways, with scenes you can call up in your mind to this day. It is currently #77 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
It seems to be about something deep ... free will or something ... but it works on the level of Straw Dogs, setting up a situation that forces us to agree with its conclusion. Malcolm McDowell's Alex is basically the only interesting character in the entire movie, and he is in every scene, as far as I can recall. McDowell plays Alex with such cunning charisma (helped by the fact that Alex narrates the film, as well) that we side with him, even as he and his droogs perform disgusting acts. One member of his gang is called "Dim", and you can see why, just as you can see why Alex is the leader: he has so much more going on in his brain than the others. And how bad can he be, after all? He loves Beethoven!
Kubrick doesn't care about any of the other characters. Patrick Magee, a decent actor, is directed to overact so badly that you can't believe your eyes. (He plays a man who was crippled by Alex and the gang when they forcibly made him watch while they raped his wife, so he has reason to be over-the-top, but as presented, he just seems like a lunatic, far more dangerous than poor Alex.) Alex tells the story, Alex is more charismatic than the rest of the cast combined, he's smarter than everyone ... of course we root for him. That he is also a thug, a rapist, a murderer, and who knows what else, is forgotten, other than to serve the function of Kubrick's arguments about free will.
You can't call A Clockwork Orange ugly ... it looks too good. But it feels ugly. Kael brings up one scene in particular:
Do people notice things like the way Kubrick cuts to the rival teen-age gang before Alex and his hoods arrive to fight them, just so we can have the pleasure of watching that gang strip the struggling girl they mean to rape? Alex's voice is on the track announcing his arrival, but Kubrick can't wait for Alex to arrive, because then he couldn't show us as much. That girl is stripped for our benefit; it's the purest exploitation.
I am not immune to the pleasures of A Clockwork Orange, although I can't say I reach the level of a friend who watched with me back in the early-70s. He laughed through the whole movie, thought it was a comedy. But I can't escape the feeling that the main thing we get from Kubrick movies is that Kubrick is a supremely accomplished filmmaker. Sam Peckinpah made movies that were usually a mess. His movies were violent in confusing ways. But at his best, his movies were also about people, about life ... there was nothing cold about his films, the way that Kubrick's often feel. Of course, Peckinpah was also capable of something as scummy as Straw Dogs. He might be the least-perfect great director of all time. Which, I guess, makes Stanley Kubrick the most-perfect mediocre director of all time.
I have now seen 15 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. My response to those films is so predictable that I wonder if I'm human or just a cyborg who likes movies. I have given 12 of those movies a rating of 7/10. (Black Panther is a 9/10, and I didn't care for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.) This is thrown off a bit because my favorite Marvel properties of the last couple of decades include the TV series Agent Carter and Agents of Shield, and I loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and apparently none of them are part of the MCU.
Black Widow was just as good as the other Marvel movies. I liked it partly because it was very un-superheroish. It was more like an action/spy movie, with car chases instead of battles between Iron Man and Thor or whatever. Scarlett Johansson was great, as usual, and Florence Pugh was good, as well, which made me glad, because we watched her in a movie last month that stunk (Midsommar), although she was the best thing about that one. It was clearly time for Natasha Romanoff to get her own movie ... well past time, given that even Ant-Man has already gotten two features. With the possible exception of Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson is the biggest star in the Marvel universe, but as often as not she's treated as eye candy more than anything else. So just the fact that she and Florence Pugh are at the center of Black Widow is progress, much as Brie Larson's box-office bonanza performance in Captain Marvel mattered beyond the billion-dollar-plus box office for that movie.
None of this would matter if the movies were bad, but, as noted, both of those films are as good as their Marvel counterparts. Johansson has two Oscar nominations, Pugh has one, and Larson actually won an Oscar ... these are accomplished actors. But they are also believable in the ass-kicking mode required of them in the Marvel films.
The plot isn't as important as the back story of Natasha and her sister ... something about an evil villain trying to take over the world ... like I say, Black Widow would fit into the James Bond universe as easily as it does the MCU. Johansson and Pugh make their story worth our attention.
One note about the special effects. We saw the movie in IMAX, partly because there are 22 minutes in the film designed specifically for that format. It was impressive, but I was working at a disadvantage: I'd had surgery for a detached retina only two weeks earlier, and so I was watching with only one good eye. Honestly, I think the giant IMAX screen helped, but it will be fun to see Black Widow again sometime when both of my eyes work.