Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Skuriels: Honorable Mentions, Part 1

(some other favorites that received multiple votes; in no particular order)

“Whenever I hear Rage Against the Machine or Michael Moore talk about ‘radicalism,’ I just snicker and think about A Clockwork Orange -- my all-time favorite movie and the most radical film ever made. By ‘radical,’ I mean something very different from far-left (or far-right) politicking, in which the film has very little interest (and I most definitely do not mean ‘rad’). What I mean is that, like Friedrich Nietzsche more than a century ago, Orange is the most caustic, heady, anti-social and thoroughgoing attack on Our Virtues that late 20th-century society has ever seen.

A Clockwork Orange makes a hero out of a murderer, and does so entirely on the basis of many of the virtues -- charisma, élan, culture, specificity, individuality, pleasure, freedom -- that we worship. It's expressed in the performances (only Malcolm MacDowell is playing a credible human being), in the direction (which not only calls attention to itself in a very high register, but which forces everything into Alex's POV -- I have no idea how this movie could even be tolerable to someone who cannot identify with Alex), and in the story (which turns every structuring binary opposition inside out by its end).

A Clockwork Orange even winds up problematizing (our conception of) frickin' human nature itself by undermining the very individual-vs.-society discourse that frames even how we late 20th century first worlders even understand Everything, long before we actually get to saying anything about any particular things. And what happens to the word "cure" throughout (the word "cure" ("I was cured all right") is the work of a genius whose irony goes all the way down and isn't an affectless pose. Indeed, one of the 287 things that make this film so endlessly fascinating is that the Ludovico treatment DOES "work" and Alex COULD have functioned, if the world had been made up of nothing but saints or Alexes. This is, for me, The Film.” ~ Victor Morton
“Faced with having to follow up the massive success of La Dolce Vita and not having a clear idea how to do it Federico Fellini found himself in the midst a personal crisis. He envisioned a film about a writer, played by Marcello Mastroianni, but he thought it would be difficult to replicate a writer’s struggle on screen. To make matters worse, his contemporary Michelangelo Antonioni had just completed La Notte, which was being praised as a more intellectual take on subject matter similar to that of La Dolce Vita and starred Mastroianni as a writer struggling with both his art and his marriage. We all know now that Fellini solved his problem by turning the camera inward - using a brilliant mix of memory, fantasy and reality to tell the story of his life at the time. As for his competition, I had to laugh when I caught a line in 8 ½ where Guido (Mastroianni) says to his sister, ‘Don’t tell me you like movies where nothing happens? I’m putting everything in. Even a dancing sailor.’ True to his word Fellini filled his masterpiece with a carnival of characters he couldn’t escape, representing the various pressure points both personal and professional that were driving him into an anxiety riddled creative block.

“Reading Fellini’s notes reproduced in the Criterion Collection DVD booklet, he recounts an episode where he was dragged to the birthday party of a crew member and once there a toast went up to the maestro himself, praising him as ‘The Magician.’ Something about this bothered Fellini and made him look deeper for an idea that would allow the production to continue. The image planted by his crew must have stuck as midway through the film the Magician appears, an old friend of Guido’s whom he asks, ‘Tell me what’s your trick?’ The Magician answers with a smile, ‘It’s partly a trick, but part of it is real.’ Never has a film brought to life so vividly the mental state of a director in production and this metaphor proves an apt description of the type of magic Fellini conjured up when reimagining parts of his life as the continuous stream of episodes we see in 8 ½.

“When it came time to make my list I knew immediately that 8 ½ would be at the top. I was introduced to it in a class taught by noted film scholar Suranjan Ganguly and have gone back to it several times when I needed some creative rejuvenation of my own. It’s a life-affirming work of genius that grows with age, revealing something new about my own experience each time I’ve watched it. There is a scene in the film where Guido is called from the sauna, a visual metaphor for heaven, and taken to the see the Cardinal. When asked his trouble, Guido admits that he is unhappy and is quickly reproached by the Cardinal who says, ‘Who told you we come into this world to be happy?’ This to me, is what makes 8 ½ truly great, the realization and acceptance that the bitterness of life’s trials is what makes the rare moments of happiness so sweet. After all of Guido’s struggles, there is a beautiful moment of optimism near the end of the film where the camera is focused on Luisa (Anouk Aimee) as we hear Guido’s voice say to his wife, ‘Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together.’ This line precedes a parade of all the film’s characters descending the makeshift staircase of the launch pad and in that moment Fellini seems to be including all of us – the actors, the producers, the crew, the critics, the people in his life, even the audience, showing us that we all played a small part in making this landmark piece of cinema possible. It’s an idea I believe strongly in and a sentiment that never fails to make me smile.” ~ Bryan Whitefield

“The 1940s were the best years for film noir, that bleakly gorgeous corner of cinema whose icy aesthetics told stories of people with heated passions. It was a time where names such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and William Faulkner appeared in the credits with ones such as John Huston and Howard Hawks, among countless other great combinations. The films remain some of our culture’s bleakest, most enthralling stories, portraits of hard men and hot women gone wrong. And Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir Double Indemnity stands second to none in that canon.

“Contained herein is a veritable checklist of the elements that comprise an ideal film noir, all executed with such mastery that the film’s age and cultural impact doesn’t dull its edge. Differing from the popular perception of noir as a detective story, Double Indemnity is the quintessential morality thriller, awash in the sin and weakness of its players. Its plot, which sees the insurance salesman hero recounting how his lust for a hot dame led to the murder of her husband, is a grim delight of lust and dark consequences.

“The script, by Wilder and Chandler and based on Cain’s novel, is equal parts thrilling and witty. But it’s the volcanic chemistry between leads Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck that makes for one of cinema’s greatest depictions of how desire can lead seemingly ordinary people into a moral abyss.” ~ James Frazier

“Years before Orson Welles fired up his Hollywood train set, F.W. Murnau dipped deep into the studio pockets to deliver this, an astonishingly fluid tone poem filled to bursting with imagination and sentiment. Effortlessly whirligigging between nightmare and dream, Sunrise is many things at many points: horror story, small town tragedy, pie-eyed romance fable, and a surprisingly goofy comedy (that drunk pig!).  Even at its broadest moments, however – The Woman from the City’s unnerving jitterbug after proposing murder, The Man’s sudden transformation into a slope-shouldered zombie – the sense of wonder remains. Above all, this is a film where you can feel the director blissing out on the sheer possibility of what movies can do. The advent of sound would soon put a limiter plate on this type of unfettered expressionism; Murnau’s masterpiece still stands, untarnished and somehow newly minted. I could watch it every night.” ~ Andrew Wright
“Of the thousands of romances committed to film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind beautifully distinguishes itself in the All Things Meta department. Toying with the idea of being able to erase one’s brain of painful memories, Eternal Sunshine takes thrilling flights of fancy with clever visual techniques that give the perspiration-inducing sensation that true love is slipping out of one’s reach, one frame at a time.

“Weaving an intricate map of the heart, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s naturalistic dialogue and well-observed romantic navigations capture poignant modulations of love, from tentative early tendrils of affection to the blunt force trauma of break-up blow-outs. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are both outstanding in bringing their frayed characters to life with the tiniest of gestures, grimaces and sighs.

“While at moments the film can feel emotionally exhausting due to the knots it ties itself into, Michel Gondry’s whimsical directorial style dovetails beautifully with Kaufman’s maze of meaning and the heart has no choice but to soar, soar, soar.” ~ Nictate

"As a showcase for a beloved, oft-beleaguered auteur and many of our finest actors, as the focus of a legendary Hollywood battle, and as a larger-than-life dystopian epic, Brazil would seem to get a free pass for consideration as a member of the cinematic canon.  Yet what makes Brazil truly stand out is a series of smaller things - little moments often encountered in real life but rarely documented on film - that comprise the technocratic system at the core of its story.

"Rather than portray bureaucracy or technology as a conventional villain, with grand evil schemes or deliberate, aggressive malice, Brazil details the way the bureaucrats of the story catalyze larger problems through their own minor but unique negative contributions, whether that be petty territorality, cronyism, incompetence, or even the resigned acceptance of the system from sheer exhaustion.  Brazil does a remarkable job of revealing, in brief glances, subtle expressions or offhand statements, those little moments of personal weakness that drive the psyche of each character.

"Those little moments add up.  While attempts at understanding the series of events on Wall Street that resulted in the global economic collapse - or the actions on K Street that resulted in America's curious occupation of Iraq - are often stymied by the lack of a single person or decision to blame, Brazil provides an uniquely accurate representation of the way the smaller actions of different kinds of bad actors can combine to create impenetrable and malignant problems for the whole of society.  This results in the film providing a remarkably prescient assessment of the world that we live in, even 25 years after its release - and one that is likely to continue to apply for some time.

"Thankfully, while its worldview could easily have resulted in a dreary or preachy film not worthy of this list, Brazil is remarkably easy to appreciate.  Packed with all manner of gags, many with a singular view of the impish nuisance of technology, and infused with moments of gorgeous cinematography, soaring music and deep visual inventiveness, Brazil continually overwhelms. Throwaway shots that last only seconds - the sudden appearance of a giant drunkard staggering over the cooling towers of a housing project, the white-picket-fenced house that is suddenly lifted to reveal the foundry it was manufactured at, or, of course, the sight of a man being literally consumed by paperwork - all create an indelible impact while harkening back to the film's themes.  The end result is wholly fulfilling, a remarkably dense, funny and enlightening cinematic experience, an unquestionably great film." ~ Dave Cowen

"A single photograph may capture the world from an unorthodox angle, but a film can construct a vision of the world that no human eye could ever duplicate. Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera begins as a document about life in a handful of Soviet cities, but it quickly transforms into a film about the city itself, in the abstract, and the human life contained therein. And before long, we understand that it is also a film self-reflexively about the medium of the cinema, fulfilling one of the most fundamental promises of the cinema: to put the human eye in new places. By watching Man With a Movie Camera, we extend our own sensorial capacity. In a manner, this is consistent with the promise of all technology, to extend our bodies and minds outside of ourselves.

"Vertov's film suggests that cinema matters quite literally because of what it can make us see. By endowing us with an enhanced view of urban, social life, we are able to see outside of ourselves and the limitations of individual consciousness. In this way, Vertov's film seeks to redeem the medium itself, to argue that cinema can play a moral role in human life despite our cultural bias against cinematic images for their supposedly illusory nature. Vertov doesn't tritely link his documentary form to some transcendence of this capacity for illusion. He simply argues that by creating more possibilities for our eyes to explore and see the world, we might also learn to think about the world differently: the physical perception of images can shape corresponding patterns of thought in the viewer. Vertov's film is foundational for anyone who believes that cinema can serve a moral purpose." ~ Trevor Link

“All right, why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um...well...there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile. Uh, like what? Okay. Um, for me, oh, I would say—well, Manhattan's glorious opening montage, to name one thing. The way it boldly prefaces an essentially tiny, insular narrative with a grandiose portrait of the entire city, anticipating Malick's epic conflation of the specific and universal. And, uh, the same film's agonizingly self-aware portrait of our profound inability to recognize what makes us truly happy. George Gershwin. The American Museum of Natural History and its perspective-enforcing exhibits, toured by two waterlogged sophisticates. Wallace Shawn as Mary's impossibly virile ex-husband, naturally. ‘I Bought My Beloved A Harmonica And All I Got Was This Lousy Breakup.’ Harsh truths about the uglier aspects of human nature expertly disguised as light comedy. Those incredible shadows and pools of light by Gordon Willis. Perhaps the greatest ending in the history of the medium, surpassing even the climactic exchange in City Lights (to which this is the cruelly uncertain flipside). Tracy's face...” ~ Mike D’Angelo 

“Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter shares a large percentage of its artistic DNA with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  Both are naked explorations of the American experience, shot through with biblical portions of greed, murder, and – most importantly – redemption.

“If you had asked me back in 2002 – at the time of the last Sight and Sound coronation – I would have chosen Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil as the greatest film ever made (or, let’s be honest, the one that most represents what I want out of my movies). The interim of a decade has pitched my tastes toward Night of the Hunter precisely because of that last ingredient I mention – redemption. Welles’ vision is still pitch-perfect in its inventory of corruption and depravity, but Laughton (with no small contribution from screenwriter James Agee and novelist Davis Grubb) spins a tale of darkness permeated by light. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s intense chiaroscuro bears this out, culminating in one of the greatest of filmed moments – Lillian Gish’s saintly foster mother dueling Robert Mitchum’s satanic preacher via hymn. In the end, the blaze of Gish’s lonely candle triumphs over Mitchum’s dark hypocrisy.

“Objectively, Laughton’s film has its flaws (there isn’t a film on my list of twenty that doesn’t) – maybe it devolves into schmaltz a little too heavily near the end, maybe Mitchum’s preacher is too quickly reduced to a cartoonish caricature. But its visual virtuosity and its respect of both the realities of evil AND (most importantly) the power of good people make it a work that continues to engage and inspire. Like its young protagonists, Night of the Hunter abides and endures.” ~ Philip Tatler
“I’ve thought about The Shining almost every day of my life in the more than twenty years since I saw it at an inappropriate age; it was the film that, along with my first viewing of 2001 a few months later, began my awareness of what a director does. And I think the greatest compliment I can give Stanley Kubrick’s cryptogram of a movie is that, even after thinking about it for most of my life and watching it dozens of times, I discover something new every time I revisit it. For all of its marvelously horrifying images, the most frightening thing about The Shining is the way its meanings and implications seem to shift and grow every time I watch it, as if I’m changing the film by observing it. It’s a film of practically limitless ideas and possibilities, as haunted and seemingly alive as the Overlook Hotel itself.

‘That Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s book about an evil hotel that turns its winter caretaker against his own family has inspired such a diverse and passionate range of interpretations, both illuminating and entertainingly bonkers, speaks to the multiple layers of meaning Kubrick meticulously built into the film. Whether Kubrick literally meant the film to be about the Holocaust, or the genocide of Native Americans, or the director’s admission that he helped fake the moon landing (!), that The Shining supports all of these readings to some extent is thanks to the way Kubrick uses the gothic tropes of the American ghost story as the basis for an archetypal exploration of universal horrors – man’s capacity for monstrosity, the destruction of family, our cultural history of violence and our mortality. Critics of The Shining tend to accuse Kubrick of not understanding horror movies; I’d argue that the film fulfills and transcends the expectations of the genre.

“More than that, The Shining is one of the most brilliant cinematic marriages of form and content. One can get easily get lost in the fearful symmetry of the production design and cinematography, and the ways that symmetry is violated. Or in the meticulous art direction, where it seems like every Afro-fabulous oil painting, hexagonal carpet pattern or Calumet can is a symbol to be decoded. Or in the impossible layout of the hotel, the endless hallways that defy spatial continuity, windows where there should not be windows and doors that should not be open. Or the unforgettable soundtrack of selections from contemporary composers like Ligeti and Penderecki, which seem to serve as the voice of the malevolent forces controlling the hotel. Whole essays could be (and have been) written about the use of mirrors and what they signify. With cinema, perfect isn’t measurable, but The Shining touches perfection more than any other film I’ve seen.

“While The Shining and most of Kubrick’s movies are very important to me, I’ve found in my own attempts at filmmaking that Kubrick isn’t much of an influence on how I direct. I feel more of an affinity with directors who allow performance to dictate the visual sensibility of the film, and I like to leave actors room to experiment, in the hope that this feeling of spontaneity can be felt in the final product (Kubrick only let a select group of actors he trusted, including Jack Nicholson, improvise on the set). I could never berate my leading lady, and I know I could never make Scatman Crothers cry. This isn’t meant as a criticism of Kubrick; it’s actually a comment on how remarkable he and his films were, as he’s one of the few filmmakers who has proven himself as capable of seeing the big picture, let alone controlling it with that kind of dedication, patience and rigorous intellect. Kubrick had the world pegged, and The Shining is as direct an exploration of the filmmaker’s mind as any I’ve seen; Kubrick’s brain may have been a scary and sometimes incomprehensible place, but it’s one that I’m sure I’ll visit many more times, forever and ever.” ~ Andrew Bemis

“Nearly 40 years after its release, it can still ruin a day at the beach.

“All it takes is some temperate weather and an idle mind, staring at the ocean, noticing a random swimmer just a bit too far out, or reacting to a child’s shriek that could be from either terror or joy. That flutter of concern you get when you’re chest-deep in the surf and feel a sudden unusual... something... out of sight, under the surface—that’s the impact of Jaws.

“Its classic tale of bravery and adventure is balanced by portraying man’s arrogance in the face of a seemingly unbeatable enemy. Jaws features a 25-foot-long eating machine, a rogue shark hellbent on devouring residents and tasty summer tourists due to descend upon the tiny resort town of Amity. That is, unless Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), the new sheriff, can cut off the shark’s food supply by closing the town beaches. However, Amity’s crooked mayor (Murray Hamilton) blocks the sheriff’s efforts in order to keep the tourist cash flowing. When more attacks occur in broad daylight, Brody has no choice but to hire Quint (Robert Shaw), a hard-nosed shark hunter with a cloudy past, to take out the shark for good.

“Thanks to some notoriously difficult filming conditions and mechanical challenges (painstakingly detailed in screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s essential The Jaws Log), the savage shark proved rather difficult to produce. In other words, there was no actual beast available for much of the movie. Does this sink Jaws? Not at all. Instead, director Steven Spielberg and his crew were forced to devise creative solutions. Underwater POV cameras and air-filled barrels tracked the shark’s movement; when all else failed, John Williams’ iconic theme—you know the one—did the rest. Even though the filmmakers had spent time and money to accurately portray this terrifying shark, they created a more emotionally jarring experience to withhold its image from the audience except for quick bursts and the final climactic scenes.

“It’s amazing to think how these same challenges would be solved in today’s CGI age. You want a shark? How about twenty of them in assorted colors?

“Sure, you can dismiss it as a mere monster movie, or a populist popcorn film propped up with marketing and merchandise, built to make millions. However, Jaws was not only a commercial success, but thanks to a taxed yet talented cast and crew, it continues to influence filmmakers and inspire fear in audiences well after they watch it.” ~ Patrick Williamson

“Exhaustively researched, executed with a watchmaker’s precision and moving at a wearying crawl, David Fincher’s Zodiac depicts the decades-long search for the Zodiac killer not as a noble charge to bring a killer to justice but rather as an insatiable itch that can never be scratched. A procedural in the most rigid sense of the word, Zodiac is a film consumed with the mechanics of an inquiry and the slow war of attrition found in a criminal investigation. Based on the true crime books of cartoonist turned investigator Robert Graysmith (who also serves one of the film’s protagonists), Zodiac presents a workable theory and a compelling argument as to the identity of the killer, yet its true interest lies in the nature of obsession and the illusiveness of closure.

“Told from the point of view of three men called into service by a bizarre series of murders in Northern California in the late 60’s, Zodiac is structurally unique in that its only through-line is the accumulated evidence. The film’s emphasis shifts repeatedly; first to Robert Downey Jr.’s flamboyant journalist Paul Avery then to diligent super-cop Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) before ultimately landing in the lap of Jake Gyllenhaal’s earnest Graysmith, who pursues the case as an all-encompassing hobby. And yet as characters recede in importance the investigation continues on, picking up where the last man left off like a runner grabbing the baton from their teammate in a relay race.Playing out like a dramatized case file, with obsessive and eerily specific time and location chyrons under nearly every scene, Zodiac, like its characters, is a film unburdened with external interests. It is about literally the same thing in every scene: the unwavering search for answers at the expense of all else.

“Yet in its single-mindedness Zodiac presents a chilling vision of the human toll of a life spent in dogged pursuit of an unobtainable goal.Stripped of their mental well-being, physical health, safety, careers, personal lives and families, the men of Zodiac are left with nothing but their curiosity and a series of rabbit holes to disappear into, each leading to more digressions, dead ends and conflicting evidence. To quote a character in another Fincher film, “even the most promising clues usually only lead to others.”By the end of the movie, the Graysmith character may have arrived at his own conclusion, yet even in his moment of victory, the film can’t resist the urge to undermine the very idea of absolute certainty.

“Existing at the pinnacle of a career defined by technical mastery and a chilly sense of control over every inch of the frame, Zodiac is David Fincher’s masterpiece. Recreating 1960’s San Francisco in 2000’s Los Angeles through subtle period costuming, hair & makeup and set dressing as well as seamless digital effects, Zodiac calls to mind the free-floating paranoia and plainspoken cynicism of the films of Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet. Arriving less than a decade after having directed another serial killer film, 1995’s seminal Se7en, Zodiac finds Fincher exploring new terrain and forgoing cheap thrills in the interest of something far quieter and more insidious. Less concerned with boogiemen jumping from the shadows, Zodiac is fixated on the existential quagmire of a journey seemingly without end and of a life unrealized and undefined in its absence.” ~ Andrew Dignan

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