Wednesday, January 26, 2011

American movies, 1970-1979

from Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Peter Yates R.I.P.

British director Peter Yates died yesterday at the age of 81. He took on a lot of projects as a director-for-hire, but he had a great eye for the landscape of American towns and cities and his best films combined that eye with rich characters and storytelling. He's probably most famous for creating one of the best car chases in film history in 1968's Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen. It's a good movie, and a great car chase, but my two favorite Yates films are 1979's Breaking Away, a comedy/drama about four working-class friends (Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley) drifting through the post-high school years in their hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, a college town where the divide between the students and the townies is sharp, and 1973's The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The latter is my favorite Yates film, a dark modern noir starring Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, and Richard Jordan. It's a bleak, tough, sad, lyrical crime film that makes excellent use of its Boston location. If you're a Robert Mitchum fan and you haven't seen it yet, rent it now. Hilariously, Yates also directed Krull.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

2010: The Year I Lost Contact

It's fitting that the first movie I saw on a big screen this year was Chris Smith's (American Movie) Errol Morris-style documentary Collapse. The film is a stylized interview with investigative journalist and former police officer Michael Ruppert. Ruppert is an arrogant, unpleasant man who nevertheless has some frighteningly believable scenarios for what the future will be like when we run out of oil. It was a portent of my year.
I didn't watch as many movies this year as I usually do, and I didn't go to the movie theater as much. I don't know if this says anything about the current art of film or the state of culture consumption and technology, but it does say something about me. I do know that I was (still am) depressed for most of the year. The last three years have brought an onslaught of deaths in the family, difficulties finding a job, anxiety, stress, anger, a fresh round of baggage about my parents' divorce, and a problem being around crowds of people. When you're sad and full of rage, a trip to the theater is not high on the list of priorities. I threw most of my free time this year into playing and listening to music, watching television series (The Wire, The Sopranos, Flight of the Conchords, Eastbound & Down), reading, writing, applying to grad schools, and the time-consuming inertial void of depression (sleeping, catatonic near-sleeping, aches, pains, more sleeping, blank staring, counseling sessions, eating, more eating, drinking, sleeping).
When I dragged myself to the theater, I didn't see as much stuff that excited me. Some of this can be attributed to my own lack of enthusiasm, but it was kind of a slow movie year. Not a terrible movie year, just a slow one. I say this with the caveat that it was a slow year for my particular city among the choices available that appealed to my particular taste and also taking into account the many titles I was interested in seeing but missed and the many, many, many titles every year that don't get decent distribution at all. This latter group is increasing exponentially every year, which is a frightening development. Want to see the last four or five Takeshi Kitano or Claire Denis or Abel Ferrara or Abbas Kiarostami films on a big screen or on video in a U.S. city? Tough shit. (Although the last two Denis films and latest Kiarostami movie may actually open wider here this year, so that's a small piece of good news.)
Other unfortunate events this movie year include the conviction and sentence of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Accused of planning to make a film critical of the current regime, Panahi was imprisoned without charge earlier this year. At year's end, Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. The twenty-year ban also includes the stipulations that Panahi can't leave the country or talk to the press. Panahi is one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, and I strongly recommend his films The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, Crimson Gold, and Offside. It will be a long time before we get to see another one.
The Grim Reaper was a real jerk-off in 2010 in all the arts, not just film. It was a regular dirtnap orgy this year. Beginning with Vic Chesnutt's suicide at the end of 2009, the year has seen an insane amount of my favorite artists dying. Rowland S. Howard, Barry Hannah, Mark Linkous, Alex Chilton, Pete Quaife, Rammellzee, Garry Shider, Catfish Collins, Harvey Pekar, Andy Hummel, Ben Keith, John Callahan, Ari Up, Gregory Isaacs, Peter Christopherson, and last but in no way least, Captain Beefheart. The film world was no less brutal, but at least most of its losses were old men, even though many of those old men were still making good films. 2010's notable losses included Eric Rohmer, Dennis Hopper, Bruno S., Claude Chabrol, Kevin McCarthy, Arthur Penn, Sally Menke, Tony Curtis, Gloria Stuart, and Blake Edwards.
But enough doom and gloom. Here are the movies I saw this year in some kind of preferential ranking, broken down into contemporary releases and film society and revival screenings, as well as the disappointments of the year. Every film in my top 10, with the exception of the top three, has at least one major, embarrassing flaw, but that's what makes art so damn interesting. You want perfect, go to Pottery Barn.

My Top 10
1. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)
I think I like Resnais the old man better than Resnais the young genius. This film plays like a Mulholland Drive/Curb Your Enthusiasm/Brief Encounter hybrid filtered through 60 years of classic European filmmaking.
2. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz)
Criminally ignored, with lukewarm reviews, but this sort-of-sequel to Happiness with different actors playing the old parts was tough, sad, funny, angry, formally inventive, and full of passion. It's a shame that his later films keep getting ignored when they're deeper and richer than his earlier work, though not quite as immediately appealing. Solondz is one of the few current filmmakers with Fassbinder's ability to create works that are simultaneously sadistic and cruel and empathetic and kind. How does he do it without canceling anything out?
3. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
4. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
5. True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen)
6. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
7. Mother (Bong Joon-Ho)
8. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
9. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam)
10. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog)

Honorable mentions
Collapse (Chris Smith)
Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero)
The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom)

Major disappointments
Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton)
Burton is past his heyday (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood), but I generally like his later work a lot more than most of my friends do, probably because he's never been one of my favorite filmmakers, just a guy whose films I like to watch. Still, this is an unfocused disaster, his worst since Planet of the Apes. I'll spare you the conclusion. It's twenty minutes of CGI swordfights with a giant dragon followed by Johnny Depp CGI-dancing to new jack swing. Conceived in 2D, the film was retrofitted for 3D shortly before release. The pointless conversion is dim and dreary. I felt like vomiting, and my wife had a headache for the rest of the day. 3D can blow me in hell forever.

It's Kind of a Funny Story (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
The team of Boden and Fleck made two of the strongest, cliche-free dramas of recent years (Half Nelson, Sugar), but this adaptation of a young adult novel set in a mental hospital made me sad by embracing every teen-movie and inspirational outsider cliche in sight and by being much less visually interesting than their previous work. I would have loved this movie when I was 14, but I'm not 14. Zach Galifiniakis brings a lot of shading and nuance to his character of a depressed guy in his late thirties who can't find a job (sounds familiar), but he's the supporting role. The main character is a rich kid who freaks out because he's under scholarship and school pressure, checks himself into the psych ward, and ends up bringing joy into all the patients' hearts and finding a smart, sweet girlfriend who's teen-depressed just like him. There are a lot of funny, strong scenes, but also a lot of cloying ones. (For example, rich kid gets another rich friend to find the record of Arabic music that the guy who won't leave his bed loves. They play the record, guy miraculously gets out of bed and dances, totally cured. What a crock of fucking lies.) I hope Boden and Fleck haven't decided to suck fake-indie teat forever and this will turn out to be some kind of anomaly in their filmography. I'm worried, yet hopeful.

Top 10 Film Society and Revival Screenings
1. Wild River (Elia Kazan)
2. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy)
3. All That Jazz (Bob Fosse)
4. The Prowler (Joseph Losey)
5. Oporto of My Childhood (Manoel de Oliveira)
6. Jezebel (William Wyler)
7. Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Nagisa Oshima)
8. Voyage to the Beginning of the World (Manoel de Oliveira)
9. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)
10. Cairo As Seen By Chahine (Youssef Chahine)

Honorable mentions
Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine)
The Land (Youssef Chahine)
Empire of Passion (Nagisa Oshima)
The Pleasures of the Flesh (Nagisa Oshima)
The Desperate Hours (William Wyler)
Children of Nature (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson)

Minor Disappointment
Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Ceylan's Climates is one of my favorite recent films, so I was disappointed I found Three Monkeys such an occasionally dreary slog. This downbeat, depressing noir thriller is well made, with a great cast and some stunningly beautiful landscape shots, but the story is at once overfamiliar and distancing and hopeless. I didn't want to spend any more time with these people once the credits rolled, and I was glad to leave the theater. Ceylan is such a talented filmmaker, however, that I still look forward to seeing his other work.

Home Video of the Year
Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine)
Korine makes people mad. They foam at the mouth, yelling that he's not an artist and his work is not art. I don't know why this conversation happens, and I'm not interested in it. I don't know why people just can't make their objections to the specific work in question rather than forcing themselves to take a stand on whether he's a fake, a sham, a phony, a charlatan. It's not that important. All artists are sincere and fake at the same time. Just like grocers, insurance agents, nannies, porn stars, pastry chefs, lion tamers, professional wrestlers, senators, and janitors. Who cares if he's conning you or really attempting to make something new or both? Who cares? I like Korine because I think he's funny and I think he finds images no one else has found and I like how he winds people up. His influences are perfect (Cassavetes, Herzog, Fassbinder, Hopper, gangsta rap, death metal, good indie rock, Appalachian folk songs, vaudeville, bad jokes, pranks, Keaton, Chaplin, Al Jolson, Milton Berle, barfights, celebrity impersonators, things we haven't seen yet). Trash Humpers played theatrically in Austin for a brief few days, but I was out of town and missed it. I caught up to it as a rental at home, and that was probably the perfect way to see it. It was shot on VHS and is supposed to look like a crappy, dubbed VHS. I could get into a long-winded discourse on VHS/found object aesthetics, but instead I will just say that I so much enjoyed watching a group of people in weird, threatening latex old-man masks hump inanimate objects and break things while laughing, grunting, shouting idiotic catchphrases and singing faux-Appalachian murder ballads. Some of it dragged, some of it was brilliant. What dragged for me might be hilarious for you, and so on. I'm glad Korine exists. Who isn't a sham? What's left for us to do now but hump trash? Nothing else worked.

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