Jun 24, 2008

summer of film

Every movie I see this summer will eventually make this list.

1. Le Doulos ("The Fingerman")
Seen for the second time. A twisty, brooding French neo-noir thriller with a smooth and bleak finish. I can't wait until it gets the American DVD release it deserves--I had to find a copy on VHS. Almost all of Jean Pierre Melville's gangster films are excellent, and this is particularly sharp.

2. Samurai Rebellion
Costume drama. Couldn't finish it, despite my love for Toshiro Mifune (see below).

3. The Seven Samurai
2nd time. Mifune's overplayed but entertaining antics come close to stealing the show as six samurai and one honorary inductee save a village from extinction. Not the most artful of all the samurai films, but certainly one of the liveliest. It's fun to see Mifune as a raving bumbler, rather than as a suave family man or sly comic genius. The man had range.

4. Man Bites Dog
Violence is bad. The media is complicit. Children shouldn't play with guns. Yawn. Didn't even make it to five minutes.

5. The Big Animal
Peter Rainer's blurb: "You've never seen anything quite so hilarious--or magnificent!" A few chuckles dot this man-versus-the-guvmint fable, but it's not "hilarious." The camel gets most of the best lines.

6. A Fistful of Dollars
A decent remake of Yojimbo, though not as tightly written. Only one massively irritating feature: a trick involving corpses propped up against tombstones, confused for living soldiers. C'mon, bad guys. When shot at, living folks don't sit still.

7. The Orphanage
When a child who imagines friends asks if he can bring a new one home, just say no. Moody, which is to say slightly dull.

8. Jesus Camp
Charismatics train kids to take back the judiciary in this not too sympathetic look at evangelical fundamentalists. There are a few revelatory moments, though. One in particular: Ted Haggard, the not-yet-disgraced pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, who tells youthful preacher Levi to capitalize on his "cute kid" persona, and when he's older the "content will come." The look that crosses Levi's face is priceless. Even though Haggard's congregation is oblivious to his canned charm, Levi sees right through him. The kid'll be agnostic by 25.

9. Green for Danger
2nd time. Alaistair Sim's Inspector Cockrill is one of his most delightful roles. Devastatingly droll, the detective hopes to solve a convoluted murder mystery set in a hospital during the German rocket bombings late in the Second World War. Whodunit is ultimately less important than the fact that, despite the overarching trauma, it's being done. Highly recommended for fans of classic British cinema.

10. Harakiri
Same themes as "Samurai Rebellion," yet more absorbing due to a flashback structure and severe, ironic twists. Not for the squeamish or the impatient. The recent Hero owes a great debt to the aesthetic and story structure presented in this morally challenging and subversive film.

11. Layer Cake
Drug dealing is a tough business. Monomaniacs and psychopaths seem to muck things up for the cool, rational, Daniel Craigs of the profession, the guys who just want to earn their bread and retire to a life of pastries. Uber-cool and clever, but never affecting. Watch Snatch instead.

12. The Long Goodbye
After the previous film, a palate cleanser. Robert Altman's assured naturalistic surrealism upends noir; this is either parody or pastiche. Gould as Marlowe is superb, but it's Sterling Hayden's performance that best captures the tornado tearing through society. Would make a great double feature with Chinatown, which subverts noir more subtly, or with the 1970s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which explores similar tropes in an entirely different manner.

13. My Darling Clementine
2nd time. To my knowledge the first (and maybe last) Western to quote Hamlet. Its faults are thus forgiven.

14. WALL-E
Americans are fat, lazy slobs who sit around all day. Because they can. Thank God for enterprising robots.

15. In Bruges
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell walk a thin line between humor and pathos in this clever and affecting gem, which is everything Layer Cake tried so hard to be. There are moments, though, when certain actors' appearance in Harry Potter films makes for unintended laughs. Highly recommended for fans of Snatch.

16. The Quiet Earth
If you were the last woman on Earth, and I was the last man, would you make me wait three dates before sharing your bed? The Quiet Earth says "you betcha." Not a big film, but in comparison to, say, I am Legend, much more realistic in its treatment of one man's descent into madness. At least, as far as a 1985 film on a fairly low budget made in New Zealand can be.

17. Barton Fink
2nd time. More than just a Simpsons punchline. The Coen Brothers are at their most surreal, John Goodman at his most subtle (for a time), John Turturro at his most coiffed. Who knew writer's block could be such a fruitful source of ideas? "I'll show you the life of the mind!"

18. Unfaithfully Yours
2nd time. Preston Sturges' "Walter Mitty." Rex Harrison delivers a nuanced, at times histrionic performance as a concert conductor who suspects his wife of infidelity, imagining various tragic outcomes as the orchestra plays under his feverish direction. The music threatens to overwhelm the actors, but Sturges manages to balance wit, pathos, and some of the most realistic slapstick ever conceived. Ever think of murdering your spouse? Think again.

19. Jumper
Jumpers can teleport. Paladins don't like that, not at all. Lowjinks ensue. A terrible film, but not terrible enough to be funny. As a mental emetic, I propose a cinematic anticharisma fight between Hayden Christensen and Keanu Reeves. They could be long-lost brothers on opposite sides of the law. At the end, one of them dies, doesn't matter which, and the world suffers less.

20. The Dark Knight
For the last time, don't ask me to tell you how I got my smile.

21. Total Recall
2nd time. The Matrix's take-the-blue-pill trick. Vanilla Sky's is-it-all-a-dream twist. Eternal Sunshine's erase-your-past premise. All owe a debt to Paul Verhoeven's trash classic--but, since it's Verhoeven, you get Schwarzenegger's beefcake and cheesy puns, a red light district replete with mutant hookers, and a dwarf toting an AK. In the director's commentary, Verhoeven is wonderfully ambiguous about the film's ontology, refusing to tell the viewer on which level the story operates. Pop philosophy, sci-fi and sexy fun. Philip K. Dick would be proud.

22. Army of Shadows
A film of the French Resistance, as resistant to Hollywoodization as possible. (In an ironic scene, two characters, awaiting orders in England, watch Gone With the Wind.) Bleak, depressing, moody, atmospheric, depressing, realistic, at times dull, at times brilliant, at times terrifying, depressing.

23. Doomsday
Amazingly, not directed by Paul Verhoeven, probably because he would have shoehorned it into just one genre. Instead, it's a post-apocalyptic virus-outbreak cannibal fashion statement car-chase Medieval actioner. For as much trashy fun as it wants to have, it's entirely too predictable, loud, and stupid.

24. The Steel Helmet
"If you die, I'll kill you!" Low-budget, gritty artistry from Sam Fuller. As Tim Brayton notes, one of the key characters, a South Korean kid named Short Round, is the inspiration for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's Short Round, one of the cinema's most obnoxious roles. He's also reincarnated in John Wayne's The Green Berets as Ham Chunk, the tyke who gets patted on the head by the grizzled vet at the film's conclusion, as Big Daddy USA gets ready to save Vietnam. Wayne's film, of course, is an attempt to make a World War II-esque movie about the war, and an interesting point of comparison. There's certainly nothing patronizing, glorified, or falsely sentimental about The Steel Helmet.

25. Eastern Promises
The last film the wife and I watched that starred Viggo Mortensen: A History of Violence, directed by David Cronenberg, and costarring Ed Harris. (My wife and I absolutely hated it.) Responses to Eastern Promises: "Viggo looks like Ed Harris" (wife). "This reminds me of Dirty Pretty Things" (me). "Cronenberg could learn a thing or two from this" (wife). Eastern Promises is directed by Cronenberg, and written by Steven Knight, who wrote the screenplay for Dirty Pretty Things. As the credits rolled, my wife said, "Cronenberg could learn a lesson from himself." Agreed. Incredibly graphic, with the most intense--or, one might say, ballsiest--fight scene ever filmed.

26. The Descent
2nd time. Does it hold up? Yes. Especially when you're watching the "Director's Cut," which is code for the British Version, which is code for a bleaker ending than the one modified for American sensibilities. The use of light and confined space is the most effective aspect of the film, an exploration of the darker crevices of human nature disguised as a horror flick. Not for the squeamish.

27. Pickup on South Street
Thanks to Netflix Instant Viewing, another Sam Fuller film, this time a small noir with a surprisingly big heart. Richard Widmark plays a pickpocket who stumbles across Jean Peters, a woman entangled in a scheme transporting microfilm for the Reds. Thelma Ritter is the film's brightest star, however, as Moe, a stoolie who sells "personality neckwear" (my new favorite phrase) and information to the cops, and just wants to save up enough for a plot in a nice cemetery: "If I was to be buried in Potter's Field--it'd just about kill me."

28. Babel
It took me two years to see the last of Inarritu's trilogy of time-benders. It was by far the worst, not only because of the lack of realism--people making stupid decisions just because the plot seems to demand them--but because of the lack of energy. Compare the dull, meditative pace of this film to the surging, intense flow of Amores Perros. Same director, same writer, completely different experience.

29. Boomerang!
My test run for Hulu.com. Definitely worth the price--a few commercial interruptions--and in decent enough quality to enjoy on a small screen. The film, directed by Elia Kazan and with a great cast including Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden, who would later oppose each other in Kazan's greatest film, On the Waterfront, involves many of Kazan's main concerns: patriotism, corruption just below the surface of society, the individual standing up against the mob. A little didactic, but solid.

30. Lost Highway
The scrimmage for Mulholland Drive. Almost all the usual Lynchian touches, including a moody score by Angelo Badalamenti. This one, though, also features late 90s pop music, most of which hasn't aged well. Watch for Marilyn Manson in a bit part, and Bill Pullman playing an unconvincing sax, and Patricia Arquette's features--all of 'em.

31. Black Book
Make this the summer of Verhoeven. His best film to date, with enough twists, explosions, and plot-driven trashiness to make this film a throwback, with and yet irrepressibly modern. The plot: Anne Frank's trampy older sister joins the Dutch Resistance. Action ensues.

32. Dead End
A drama of gentrification.
Brood (v): to think anxiously or gloomily about. See: Humphrey Bogart.

33. The TV Set
An understated yet scathing look at the way a work of genius goes from pilot to pap. David Duchovny plays the weather-beaten writer. His supporting cast, many of whom are TV regulars, is effective. The fake shows-within-the-show are pitch-perfect, which is to say, perfectly designed crap. Afterward, the wife and I had to watch an episode of Arrested Development, and marvel that a good show ever gets to see the light of day.

34. The Conformist
Brilliant cinematography isn't enough to propel a slow, not-quite-intriguing story of one man's capitulation to fascism.

35. Red Road
Fear of the nanny state is usually framed with a question: who will watch the watchers? You will, if you chance upon Red Road, which uses closeups, grainy surveillance video, and gritty sections of Glasgow to create a compelling, shockingly graphic story. It stumbles only slightly at the finish, with a jarring musical intrusion that undercuts the tension of everything that came before.

36. The Grand Silence
I wish I could find a subtitled version--dubbing is the only flaw in this chilled spaghetti western. Klaus Kinski's eyes threaten to melt the Utah snow, and Jean-Louis Trintignant capably plays a Clint Eastwoodesque mute with vengeance on his mind. Ennio Morricone spices up the score with a sitar, a strangely effective choice.

37. Shallow Grave
Danny Boyle's first directorial effort is slick, but a little too stylish for its own good. For a better take on a similar premise, watch A Simple Plan (serious) or La Comunidad (absurdist). Shallow Grave goes for both, but never adds up. (Amazing that the same guy who directed this also cranked out Millions.)

38. Hamlet 2
A tragic disappointment.

39. Women of the Prehistoric Planet
MST3K-style, thankfully. No plot summary or capsule critique could capture the depths of feeling in this unique creation myth. No, really. Sorry if I spoiled the twist ending for you.

40. Robot Monster
"At what point on the graph do 'must' and 'cannot' meet?" I'm not sure, but it's precipitously close to the point where gorilla suits and bubble machines collide with a low budget and ridiculously short shooting schedule. In other words, right at the nexus known as Robot Monster. Even without MST3K commentary, this one's a hoot, and a great way to wind down a summer of film.

1 comment:

Captain Princess said...

I got Eastern Promises for free this summer. There was a really neat trick for the first half of the film *POSSIBLE SPOILERS* where the audience doesn't actually know where the film is taking place. After the reveal, I was off balance for the rest of the film.

Neat trick that.