what i watched

The Blob (Irvin S. Yeaworth, 1958). Better than you might remember, if you remember it at all ... it may have turned up on Creature Features when I was a kid, but I'm an old man now. The actors are sincere ... no one plays it for laughs, and that works, with Steve McQueen being only the best example. It's a bit like Rebel Without a Cause, only with a monster from outer space. Anita Corsaut, who later gained fame as Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show, is Steve's girl. The title song (yes, there is one) is co-written by Burt Bacharach. Excellent use is made of color, which was lost on my black-and-white TV when I was growing up. The color makes The Blob look better than the usual 50s monster movie. There is a dark void at the center of the movie ... The Blob is like the shark in Jaws, it has no ulterior motive, it just gobbles people up, growing larger with each victim (yep, it's another Red Scare movie!). And there's an irony in the ending that can only be appreciated, if that's the word, nowadays.

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). Rachel Weisz said this is "Like a funnier and sex-driven All About Eve". She's right about the sex, but The Favourite does not come close to All About Eve on the wit scale. Nominated for ten Oscars, including nods for all three stars (Olivia Colman for Best Actress, Weisz and Emma Stone for Supporting), along with Best Picture, Best Director, and more. That's overkill. It's not as weird as The Lobster, also directed by Lanthimos, and maybe it could have used some weird. It earns its R rating ... the IMDB informs us, for instance, that "The film has 9 uses of 'fuck' and multiple uses of 'cunt'". So it's not as bland as it could be, and there is some good work here. I'm always glad to see Olivia Colman get attention, and I think it would be great if she won an Oscar. But, to quote the movie, I just didn't give a fuck. Already #296 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. I'll add that when the following scene appeared, most of the audience thought it was hilarious. My wife and I, at 65, were also among the younger people in the crowd.

my fave movies of the 21st century

An interesting question came up in the comments for the post on the latest They Shoot Pictures, Don't They update: What are the one or two 21st century films that have ranked highest in my informal all-time list? Interesting enough to answer the question in a separate post.

The easiest place to start is with the Fave Fifty project a few of us did on Facebook back in 2011. Here are the 21st century films that made my all-time top 50 list:

City of God (#20 on my list, #10 on TSPDT)

In the Mood for Love (#38, #1)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (#44, #33)

The Lives of Others (#45, #31)

Since then, I have also given my highest rating to these movies, which came out in 2011 or later:

A Separation (#17 on TSPDT)

Mad Max: Fury Road (#49)

Before Midnight (#207)

The Square (N/A)

If any of these movies would make my current Top 50 list, it's probably A Separation. Fury Road, much as I love it, isn't different enough from The Road Warrior for me to bump it that last little bit, and Before Midnight gets at least some of its value from being the third in a trilogy. The Square is the only documentary on this list, so it will get an honorable mention.

So the question is, where would A Separation fit among those other four movies from my 2011 list? The only one of those movies I've watched in the past few years is In the Mood for Love, which grows in my heart with each viewing. I'd probably put it at the top of those four movies now. So, off the top of my head, here are my Top Five movies of the 21st century:

  1. In the Mood for Love
  2. City of God
  3. A Separation
  4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  5. The Lives of Others

they shoot pictures, don't they: 2019

The They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website has posted their annual update, with the All-Time list going up last month and the 21st-century list arriving Friday. I cite them often on this blog ... the idea of someone compiling all the best-ofs in the world appeals to me. And the I Check Movies site helps me keep track of how I'm doing in seeing the movies on the TSPDT lists. Site poobah, Australian Bill Georgaris, has done good previews for the new lists, and a lot of what follows is based on his work.

The top ten movies of all time, as usual, is pretty much the same from year to year. The only difference this year is that two movies switched places, The Godfather and 8 1/2:

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

The biggest new entrant was Audition at #702. The formerly highest-ranked movie to fall off the list was the 1978 Superman, which was #685 last year.

The stagnant nature of the all-time list led Georgaris to create a list solely for 21st-century movies. The need for this can be seen in the listing for In the Mood for Love, which is #1 on the 21st-century list, but up against the compiled wisdom of more than a hundred years, it is only #44 all-time. Here's the 21st-century top ten:

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

Even this list is gradually becoming fossilized ... there were only 2 changes to the top 50.

As for what I Check Movies tells me about my own viewing habits ... I have seen 665 of the 1001 movies in the all-time list, including the top 102. (Satantango is #103.) As for the 21st-century list, I've seen 472 of 1001, including the top 15 (Russian Ark is #16).

what i watched

Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959). Only my third film by Resnais, after the all-time classic Night and Fog and the bizarre Last Year at Marienbad. In all three films, Resnais plays with time ... in Hiroshima, as in Marienbad, there is looping, endless conversations about what did or didn't happen. (No one doubts that the camps in Night and Fog really happened.) Emmanuelle Riva comes across best ... Eiji Okada apparently did his dialogue phonetically, and while that might just add to the oddness of the film, you imagine he could do better in his native language. Riva is given more to tell us about her character than is Okada, and she is ultimately the more impressive of the two (this was her first feature). Written by novelist Marguerite Duras ... she got an Oscar nomination, losing to The Apartment. It's a very intense film. It's not very likable, but I suppose it isn't supposed to be. #107 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. My favorite films of 1959:

  1. Rio Bravo
  2. Fires on the Plain
  3. The 400 Blows
  4. North by Northwest
  5. Pickpocket

Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963.) I had already done my homage to Albert Finney, but the upcoming Criterion Channel wanted to join in, making two of his movies their picks of the week as they prepare their streaming service. I chose the one I hadn't seen, Tom Jones. It's a busy film, not at all stately like you might expect from a film based on an 18th-century novel. The camerawork is annoying at times, although it does feel very modern, given that many movies these days are burdened with overactive cameras. Once in awhile, Richardson has his actors break the fourth wall, for no apparent reason. The movie is zesty enough ... all of the women have cleavage, even Edith Evans, who was 75 at the time. It's assumed that fucking is on everyone's minds, and Tom goes through quite a list of women on his way to true love. Albert Finney was very pretty in those days, and pretty is the word ... many of the women say it when they see his face. There is a famous eating-as-foreplay scene, and lots of fine actors turn up. Five of them got Oscar nominations, although none won: Finney for Best Actor, Hugh Griffith for Best Supporting Actor, and three women for Best Supporting Actress (Evans, Diane Cilento, and Joyce Redman). Tom Jones won a bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and John Osborne for the screenplay. It's not a bad movie, but you wonder why the Oscars loved it so much at the time. On the other hand, among the nominees for Best Picture were the famous flop, Cleopatra, and the clunky Cinerama Western, How the West Was Won. My three favorite films from 1963 are The Leopard, High and Low, and From Russia with Love.

lesser-known 1990 films

Catherine Stebbins asked on Twitter, "i need you to recommend me lesser known films from 1990". I went to MovieLens, which has stored 2,178 of my movie ratings, and asked it to sort those ratings by the difference between my rating and the average rating, where I liked it more than others.

Here are the top nine, with my rating and the average MovieLens user's rating, on a scale of 5:

Bullet in the Head (4.5, 3.52)

Arachnophobia (3.5, 2.76)

Pump Up the Volume (4.0, 3.5)

Close-Up (4.5, 4.07)

Total Recall (1990) (4.0, 3.6)

GoodFellas (4.5, 4.18)

An Angel at My Table (4.0, 3.74)

Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (3.0, 2.78)

The Godfather: Part III (3.5, 3.45)

This "method" isn't perfect. I may have liked Roxy Carmichael more than the average person, but I didn't really like it anyway. Close-Up and GoodFellas are movies I liked more than the average person, but the average person liked them a lot, too. The first two movies on this list stand out, though, the first because while it is fairly popular, I am way ahead of everyone on it, the second because it's mostly junk but I liked it OK nonetheless. So what do we take from this? If you haven't seen them, watch Bullet in the Head and Arachnophobia.

revisiting chungking express (wong kar-wai, 1994)

This was a bit of a test in a couple of ways. First, it's the latest Movie of the Week on the upcoming Criterion Channel, so I felt obliged to stream it, even though I own the Criterion Blu-ray. Second, I wanted to try out my new computer with its 4k graphics. This was also a stretch, since the Channel wasn't in 4k, so the movie probably looks better on the TV in Blu-ray. But I had to play with my new toy.

I wrote about Chungking Express before, and outside of liking it even more this time, I don't have much to add. Interesting to note how critical opinion changes ... when I wrote about the film in 2010, it was #320 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Now it has moved up to #214. This reflects my own opinion, since, as I noted back then, I've liked Chungking Express more every time I've seen it. Brigitte Lin and Tony Leung are great, but I expect no less from those great actors. (Leung really is in my pantheon ... I've given my highest rating to In the Mood for Love, Hard Boiled, and Red Cliff, and have never given one of his movies a bad rating ... his average is 8.5/10.) Faye Wong is such a bright spot ... she was/is a singer, she had done some acting, mostly on TV, but Chungking Express was her breakout role in movies. (She has only acted in a few features since.) She commands the screen, and being able to do this when sharing a scene with Tony Leung isn't easy.

One of my favorite film-based videos is this one, created out of Faye Wong's hit version of "Dreams" by The Cranberries:

It's funny, in the movie, the song most identified with Faye is "California Dreaming", but it's her version of "Dreams" that has always stuck with me.

It amazes me that Chungking Express is now 25 years old. The actors are so young ... Tony Leung was 32, Faye Wong was 25, Takeshi Kaneshiro (unfairly getting less attention than the other stars) was 21, and Brigitte Lin, the veteran, was 40.

How did the test go? The Criterion Channel picked a good one for their second Movie of the Week, and the new 4k 27" screen looked great, even in a non-4k film.

gumshoe (stephen frears, 1971)

Wanted to watch something with Albert Finney in honor of his passing. Looking at his past work, I found I liked the movies best where he was a supporting character: Traffic, Skyfall, Erin Brockovich. There's one I liked a lot when it came out, but haven't seen since: Shoot the Moon. And there are ones that are highly regarded which I didn't care for: Miller's CrossingBig Fish. I chose an obscure one I hadn't heard of: Gumshoe.

Turns out Gumshoe is one of those movies that are more fun to talk about than to watch, because the trivia is pretty interesting. Finney intended to direct, as he had for Charlie Bubbles, but decided instead to give the directing job to his assistant on Charlie Bubbles, Stephen Frears. This was thus Frears debut as a director ... he later received two Best Director Oscar nominations, and he directed one of my very favorite movies, Dangerous Liaisons. Also making his movie debut was Andrew Lloyd Webber, who did the music.

There wasn't a lot of originality to Gumshoe, which borrowed from numerous detective story cliches without enlightening any of them. Finney plays the title character, Eddie Ginley, a comedian who gets by calling bingo games. On a lark, he puts an ad in the local paper offering his services as a private investigator, and the next thing he knows, he has a job. Old Time Radio fans might be reminded of the Alan Ladd show, Box 13, which was better than Gumshoe. The movie stumbles around for an hour and a half, and doesn't overstay its welcome, even if it never really finds its moment. The most noteworthy thing is also its most distasteful: Ginley regularly refers to the main black character with a variety of racist epithets, which never seem to be noticed by the other characters.

Sorry, Albert, I chose the wrong movie to remember you by.

minding the gap (bing liu, 2018)

Minding the Gap, nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, is the first feature film of Bing Liu, who as of this writing does not have a Wikipedia page. Based on this film, that won't last. Liu, who I believe is in his mid-20s, has a long list of credits. The IMDB gives him 38 credits for "Camera and Electrical Department", many of them for TV. If nothing else, this helps explain the extraordinary look of Minding the Gap; on what seems to have been a budget of about $15, Liu dazzles with his shots of skateboarding. What is surprising is that Liu also has a great sense of how to build a movie so that it doesn't just offer up pretty pictures, but also tells a story that is progressively deeper during the film.

Minding the Gap is the story of three young boys/men (including Liu) from Rockford, Illinois, who share a love of skateboarding. At the start, it doesn't seem to be headed anywhere. But as we get to know the boys, as we learn their personal stories, we understand that skateboarding means more to them than just zipping around. It provides an alternative family for kids whose home lives are troubled. The film lets us gradually see this, but the boys themselves seem to understand it without saying anything. They are reflective of their own lives without being solipsistic about it.

At first, I was worried that Liu was exploiting his friends. But they don't seem disarmed by the process of being interviewed on camera. And Liu plays fair ... he turns the camera on himself, in a tense scene with his mother, who is confronted with the reality of her son's abuse at the hands of his stepfather. If at times, I wondered if Liu was taking advantage of the boys, well, he throws himself right into the mix.

The result is a character study, which didn't seem likely. When the film began, I thought the camera work was nice, and settled in for a pretty but empty ode to skateboarding. By the end, I'd seen something far beyond that supposed emptiness.

And Liu amazes in the way he creates a movie that feels seamless. Liu credits co-editor Joshua Altman for much of this, and it is interesting to read interviews with Liu and Altman where they describe the tag-team method they used for editing. But the credit would seem to go to both ... Liu is a more-than-active participant in the process.

Minding the Gap is an audacious first film. This isn't the last we'll hear of Bing Liu.

film fatales #51: mikey and nicky (elaine may, 1976)

Mikey and Nicky shows the perils of creating a "Film Fatales" category solely on the basis of who directed the film. Because this movie plays very much like a Cassavetes movie, not one of his Gena Rowlands specials like A Woman Under the Influence but more like the ode to masculinity that was Husbands. Elaine May (who wrote and directed Mikey and Nicky) doesn't shy away from showing the toxic nature of that masculinity. But it remains very much a Guy Movie, and the rare female characters are treated badly.

The film is most famous for behind the scenes action. May was not new to directing ... this was her third film, after A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid ... and the final product looks and feels professional, again in the way that Cassavetes movies often do. But apparently it took a lot for May to get what she wanted on the screen, and it's not clear the result is what she wanted. Here's Wikipedia:

The film's original $1.8 million budget had grown to nearly $4.3 million ($16.6 million in contemporary dollars) by the time May turned the film over to Paramount. She shot 1.4 million feet of film, almost three times as much as was shot for Gone with the Wind. By using three cameras that she sometimes left running for hours, May captured spontaneous interaction between Falk and Cassavetes. At one point, Cassavetes and Falk had both left the set and the cameras remained rolling for several minutes. A new camera operator said "Cut!" only to be immediately rebuked by May for usurping what is traditionally a director's command. He protested that the two actors had left the set. "Yes", replied May, "but they might come back". May was even said to have hidden reels of film from Paramount in order to maintain control during postproduction.

It's only fair to note that May had the right idea, trying to get Falk-Cassavetes interaction. They always work well together, if self-indulgently. But clearly the studio had a different notion of what kind of movie May was making ... she was pouring herself into something big, they expected a small-scale character study with gangster undertones. For the audience, what matters is that Mikey and Nicky fails on most levels. It's not much of a gangster picture, it's certainly not what we think of as a "big" picture, and the interplay between Cassavetes and Falk only goes so far (and I like them together).

Still, it's hard not to think that May would have gotten better treatment and more respect from the studio if she were a man. The three films she made in the 1970s were personal in the way of many directors of that time. While I am not a big fan of The Heartbreak Kid, it has been a critical fave since its release. And if Mikey and Nicky (and, for that matter, apparently A New Leaf) involved battles between director and studio, well, let me introduce you to Sam Peckinpah. But May's career was seemingly destroyed by these three movies, Mikey and Nicky in particular. And when, a decade later, she finally directed another movie, it was Ishtar, which almost immediately was considered a monumental flop (and a lot more expensive than Mikey and Nicky). May is still alive, but she never directed another feature.

Mikey and Nicky was chosen as the first film on the new streaming service from Criterion.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

dick miller

Dick Miller died yesterday at the age of 90. The IMDB lists 182 acting appearances for him ... that number seems low. I imagine he was a favorite of just about anyone who recognized him in one of those 182 films. Here is a two-part retrospective of Miller's work ... note that this was done 9 years ago, he made another dozen appearances after this!

In his honor, I watched Rock and Roll High School, one of my very favorite movies. Miller's part is short, but memorable. I don't think I've ever written about Rock and Roll High School. I ought to ... it's been my friend for 40 years. In the meantime, some Ramones-centric clips. First, one of the all-time greatest entrances in rock and roll movie history ... one of my favorite parts of the movie is that The Ramones are presented as the equal of The Beatles ... in the world of this movie, they rule.

The concert:

And "Do You Wanna Dance":