Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Skuriels: Orphans

(Movies that only received one vote but which their supporters saw fit to champion anyway)

“The best horror films are the ones that don't need the monster. Think: Cat People, minus the Eastern European fairy-tale curse, is a terrific drama about a young couple that marry too early and discover they aren't sexually compatible. Strip out the ghosts, and The Shining is still an intense story about an alcoholic who's failed his family in the past and struggles to not fail them in the present. Sans the Tall Man, Phantasm would be a funky, macramé'd hang-out flick, a post-hippie family (and their ice cream-vending friend) coming to terms with the death of a loved one. The best horror films are gripping long before the creature slithers to the surface. The best horror films bury the lede.

“That's why The Brood is so magnificent.  Frank wants custody of his daughter from Nola, his mentally-unbalanced wife and her crackpot psychiatrist -- that's a enough of a movie right there. Throw in some murderous, footie pajama-clad toddlers, and it's Kramer vs. Kramer with a body count. And while The Brood doesn't need its horror elements to depict divorce as a psychic blood feud, it uses them brilliantly to make an end run around the kind of cinematic realism that would muffle the screams.  Here, children literally become weapons for Nola to strike back at those she feels wronged her, and Cronenberg stages these scenes with the deftness of Hitchcock, and in the case of the unfortunate schoolteacher, the savagery of Argento. Not even innocent bystanders can escape unharmed.

“And yet, the people at the center of this darkness never seem like villains, just very weak and human. Nola doesn't mean to hurt anyone with her hate babies; she births them parthenogenetically to get back what she's lost -- a family. That they telepathically respond to her feelings of anger and betrayal is a metaphor for the way we unthinkingly lash out and hurt one another. Nola's father is implicated in her madness, but he's allowed to tearfully break down over his ex-wife's murder. (An unusually poignant moment for a horror film, but then, grief is rarely allowed to intrude in this genre.) Even Dr. Raglan, a classic mad scientist, is sympathetic by the end.”

“The best horror films leave a mark. This one leaves a tumorous growth.” ~ Kent M. Beeson 

“One could compile an entire list of best films of all time comprised entirely of Charlie Chaplin titles. (Robert Bresson did once, in fact, famously list City Lights as both #1 and #2 and The Gold Rush as #3 on his Sight & Sound ballot, leaving the other 7 slots blank.) Yet, if one must single a Chaplin film out as the crowning achievement of his career, and perhaps of all cinema, it would be Limelight.

“Released in 1952, Limelight is Chaplin’s third to last film and the last one he would shoot on American soil before being exiled by the U.S. government. It has always been my contention that Chaplin is the greatest cinematic humanist for in his films people—individuals—are never villains. Systems, machines, and what a person represents within society are. But never human beings themselves.  The themes and ideas that Chaplin had spent decades investigating—the individual vs. society, loss, the Truth of love, the ability of ordinary man to be so much more than ordinary man, and his abiding belief that despite all of its ugliness, unfairness, brutality, and pain, life is a glorious thing—culminate in Limelight. 

“Claire Bloom plays Thereza, a suicidal ballet dancer whose life is saved by Chaplin’s Calvero (a now out of work, formerly famous stage clown), who nurses her back to health after she attempts to kill herself. In Limelight, Chaplin creates a harmonious balance between sound and image, never letting one overshadow the other. His body is as nimble and plastic as ever, pantomime being an inseparable part of his performance as he communicates ideas and emotions through the gestures of hands and movement of shoulders, sometimes in convergence with words, sometime in their absence.

“While Thereza is convalescing Calvero delivers a number of monologues to rouse her spirits. During one of these speeches, as Thereza lies listless and weeping in bed because her legs are paralyzed, questioning what reason she has to go on Calvero, pacing about her room, says: ‘What is there to fight for? Everything! Life itself! Isn’t that enough? To be lived, suffered, enjoyed! What is there to fight for? Life is a beautiful, magnificent thing even to a jellyfish…There’s something just as inevitable as death and that’s life, life, life life! Think of the power that’s in the universe moving the earth, growing the trees, and that’s the same power within you if you’ll only have courage and the will to use it.’ Chaplin is acutely aware of the weight and value of words—the power of a few poetically simple sentences to not just teach one how to live life (as cinema so often does), but to make life livable.” ~ Veronika Ferdman

“The buzz in Toronto during the 2002 film festival spread from whispers to eye-bulges. Wait a second, Gus Van Sant – the guy who gave up his indie cred of My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy in order to do cloying Hollywood bullshit like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester – is doing another movie with Matt Damon & an Affleck brother and… it’s a masterpiece? Gus is back? You’re damn right he is.

“You know when a cocky rapper drops a sick freestyle that stuns the audience, then throws his mic to the floor and walks off the stage, swaggering with the arrogance of a man who knows he just blew your mind? That’s how brash Gerry is as minimalist art cinema. Like an existentialist Bela Tarr tribute turning a true story into Waiting for Godot on screen, Van Sant took our collective breaths away with stirring imagery of the desert (Hello, Harris Savides, please have my first-born child) and a punishing look inside the human soul stripped bare by necessity and desolation. The dialogue was funnier than most gave it credit for (‘Shirt basket’ ‘Barreying down the road!’). And the cumulative power was almost too much to bear.

“I ended up seeing the film four times in the theater before 2003 was over, just to make sure I’d really seen one of the greatest films of this (or any) generation, and I was never disappointed. Every choice Van Sant made was smart – it served a film that never once wavered. It’s slow, it’s sad, and at times nearly nihilistic. But in how moving and gorgeous a work of cinema it is, it remains to this day one of the most uplifiting experiences I’ve had with the movies, to the point where I’m giddy just writing this text.” ~ Zach Ralston

“Few films are legitimately mind-blowing, but to that brief list add Hollis Frampton’s structuralist epic Zorns Lemma. Frampton was a photographer who fell into filmmaking as his interest in duration and structure grew. Whereas a lot of avant-garde cinema errs towards the sensual or visceral, Frampton’s films are intellectual. Arguably more than any other film, they demand your complete attention. (nostalgia), made as part of his seven-part Hapax Legomena series, is a parade of shots of photographs, each burned on a hot plate while a narrator elucidates on their context. Thing is, the narration is always for the subsequent photograph, not the one we’re being shown. The viewer has to forever overcome a logical hiccup, remembering the story relayed in the previous shot while memorizing the one for the next. Poetic Justice, from the same series, shows pieces of paper being laid onto a table, each with a description of a movie shot. These descriptions become increasingly impossible, whether by budgetary or logical means. It creates a hypothetical film, forcing the spectator to imagine it purely inside their head.

“Zorns Lemma was made prior to these two films, but it’s his crowning achievement. An hour-long and divided into three parts, it begins in darkness, with a woman reading from the Bay State Primer, an early American grammar textbook that taught students the alphabet using sentences from the Bible. Sound is replaced by image in the largest section: we are presented with one-second shots of signs about New York City, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet, in succession. Slowly, over 45 minutes, each ‘letter’ is randomly replaced by an image: X becomes a bonfire, K a man painting a wall, Q steam escaping from a street vent, etc. (I won’t spoil which letter ‘wins.’) Finally, sound and image are married, with an 11-minute shot of a couple walking up a snowy hill while different voices read one word each from the 11th century treatise ‘On Light, or the Ingression of Forms.’

“There’s a couple ways to read this. One is as a presentation of the life cycle: starting in darkness, we move into the bulk of life, when we are educated and programmed by the world in which we’ve found ourselves. Finally, we lose grasp of meaning -- the different voices, reading one word at a time, serve to make the passage difficult to follow -- and succumb to old age or dementia. The last thing we see is a flash of light, then nothingness. It can also be read as autobiographical, which would require deeper reading into both Frampton’s life and the film itself. (Although, with its images of late ‘60s/early ‘70s urban/bohemian life, it is truly one of the great NYC movies, at least as evocative of a time and place as Dog Day Afternoon and ilk.)

“Personally, I prefer it as a film that reprograms the mind. We are taught, slowly and patiently, a new, purely visual language. By the end we associate certain images -- a kid being pushed on a swing, meat being hand-ground, a shot of waves lapping -- with letters in the alphabet. To watch it is to feel like the characters being brainwashed by cinema in A Clockwork Orange and The Parallax View, only the effect is neither insidious nor long-lasting. It’s not immediately apparent what Zorns Lemma is doing to you, but as Ernie Gehr said: ‘When you finally ‘get it,’ a small light, possibly a candle, will light itself inside your forehead.’” ~ Matt Prigge

“For all the crackpot aphorisms he's been saying/tweeting lately re:TM, it's a method that's clearly worked for David Lynch throughout his career. (He began practicing it mid-production on Eraserhead, in 1973.) 'Catching the big fish,' as he says, Lynch credits the singularity of films like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Dr. to his use of TM techniques. While those three films are examples of the products from his 'dives within,' INLAND EMPIRE stands out as a dive itself; what one should eventually realize while watching it is that this cannot be understood as a David Lynch movie per se, but rather as a visualization of one of his brainstorming sessions (as surreal and stream-of-conscious as some of his prior films were, this is the only film he's made to date for which the narrative is not intended to be resolved). The reason why such a conceit is able to function as cinema is credit to Lynch's knack for crafting some of the most harrowing, enigmatic, and frankly beautiful moments the medium can achieve. Essentially Lynch unabridged, INLAND EMPIRE is a device for such moments to blitz viewers point blank, framed by a web of elusive narratives that prevents the experience from ever becoming settled and stale.”

“What also makes INLAND EMPIRE so immediately legendary is the prescient production strategy that Lynch employed. INLAND EMPIRE arrived in a brief window in which shooting a film digitally and then exhibiting it on celluloid was the standard operating procedure. Cinemas didn't yet have video projectors, yet prominent auteurs and a younger generation of filmmakers were beginning to make projects with cheaper and more efficient production methods (e.g. consumer camcorders). Lynch proclaimed that a peculiar and beautiful aesthetic emerged when video was transferred to celluloid (having seen the film three time in 35mm, four times on DVD, and once on blu-ray, I can comfortably say that it looks essentially the same in all three formats), but the truly revolutionary thing about this new medium was that it allowed him to capture everything, always, for two full years. As much as James Benning's body of work up to 2007 was an evolving collaboration with the durational characteristics of celluloid, Lynch here celebrates the expanded durational allowances of DV, with INLAND EMPIRE being a kind of treatise that has to date only been approached by Benning's own Ruhr. Rid of expensive film stock and prohibitive shot-length limitations, Lynch ran rampant with INLAND EMPIRE and achieved something that's almost completely self-indulgent - the most unfairly maligned adjective in art.” ~ Blake Williams

“From such literary adaptations as Kagi, I Am a Cat, and The Makioka Sisters to the epic documentary Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa was a brilliant, technically daring, far-reaching director who was constantly extending his own range, and his reputation still hasn’t fully caught up with his achievement. Brutal yet visionary, drenched in black humor and draped with religious imagery, Fires on the Plain may be his finest work: a war movie set at the point when the fighting is essentially over but you can still easily be killed, assuming you survive long enough to meet someone who cares enough to bother. It’s the most humanist of unrelentingly bleak movies, and the greatest antiwar film this side of Le Grande Illusion, a film that denies even the romantic appeal of von Rauffenstein’s tarnished ideals to say, as movingly as possible: there is nothing remotely beautiful or noble about any of this.” ~ Phil Dyess-Nugent

"Raj Kapoor's Awaara may be one of the 20th century's greatest arguments for melodrama and conventional storytelling. In many ways, Awaara is a film that belongs to Indian culture as a whole, but like Citizen Kane, a film with which it can be reasonably compared (not least because of a shared use of flashbacks to tell their respective stories), it is also the dazzlingly virtuosic work of an individual genius. Raj Kapoor has filled his film with shot after shot that seem locked in competition with one another to impress the viewer, all without every seeming gratuitous. One way you can watch Awaara is by simply marveling at the succession of brilliant shots, numbering into the hundreds, and you usually don't have to wait more than a minute for another one to show up and inspire utter awe.

"But Kapoor is also a great showman, an actor so in control of his body as a performer that he can almost instantly evoke the most complex and rich pathos in the viewer. This is where the other obvious point of comparison comes into play: Kapoor has often been hailed as his country's Charles Chaplin, which is not at all far-fetched. Like Chaplin, Kapoor wields sentimentality as few other 20th century artists have. In his story of a man led astray, victimized by social inequities, Kapoor is a perfectly sympathetic star, a man who can make a nation weep not only for him but for themselves as well. And alongside his co-star Nargis, one of cinema's most radiant female stars, Kapoor has created a film that borders on the divine, a cosmic melodrama and musical that ennobles all of humanity with its genius and compassion." ~ Trevor Link

“Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov isn’t the first name cinephiles think of when they cite the visual masters of the 20th century. Not as prolific as Kurosawa, not as incisive as Kubrick, and not as famous as Spielberg, Kalatozov might have escaped notice entirely were it not for Martin Scorsese, who declared 1964’s I Am Cuba as one of the greatest films of all time. He wasn’t exaggerating.

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw I Am Cuba. It growled onto the screen, as if the projector was afraid to keep the images inside its body. The stark black-and-white photography sweated like the sugar cane workers in the second chapter slicing their machetes with the force of the dozens of rebellious students who get blasted by fire hoses in the film’s third section. The camera, which glides down a building and into a pool (Hello, Boogie Nights), is as sexy, seductive, and mysterious as the nightclub music scoring the opening chapter.

“Political and revolutionary films are rarely this entertaining, and films this skillful and technically exacting are rarely so profoundly affecting. I Am Cuba may be dated in its Havana politics of the ‘60s, but its greatest revolution is the pure cinematic joy it gives its viewers – and that’s something that never ages.” ~ Zach Ralston

"’So it should be said that MILESTONES is the anti-NASHVILLE...’ - Serge Daney

‘I don't think there's anything more frightening than a private, selfish life.’ - Grace Paley (Helen) in MILESTONES

“Robert Kramer and John Douglas' intimate, earthy, and kaleidoscopic Milestones stands as the definitive portrait of the fallout from 1960s American leftism. As the '60s faded, the revolution moved from streets, and campuses, to half-lit bedrooms and half-finished conversations; what was a lost collective fight was attempted to be regained as a personal one. Milestones resists the isolation of that political loss, if it was one, by containing a multitude of activist perspectives, collectively accumulating to something resembling the movement itself: unsettling, uneven, utopic and earnest.

“If the visual and aural approach to Milestones evokes verite documentaries of the period it's out of the need to capture something quickly, just before it evaporates. It's with this roaming, wide-angled approach that the intimacies and horrors of everyday life become expansive and epic, and located someplace visible: ‘The basic elements of film must partake in the beauty of the deepest practicality,’ said Nathaniel Dorsky in ‘Devotional Cinema.’ Adrift in an abyss of disillusioned optimism, Milestones is a deeply immersive film, constantly threatening to collapse under the weight of its own materiality, which is to say, distinctly American.” ~ Michael Lieberman

“Briefly, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is -- by Peckinpah's own admission -- the movie on which he was most free, the one where had the most control. As such, it's his grubbiest and, in turn, his most idealistic, with a mighty performance by his signature actor, Warren Oates. The movie has a weird, almost druglike spell; sometimes I watch it and find it deeply metaphysical in a Beckett vein (talking to a dismembered head about your romantic problems?). It's also hilarious and extremely redolent of the early-'70s: Nixonian paranoia, huge boatlike cars, casual racism and sexism. I love it, but sometimes can't say why.” ~ Joshua Rothkopf

“I know it probably sounds like hopeless contrarianism to see 1941 on any list of the top 20 greatest movies ever made. I’ve already made my reasons clear elsewhere here as to my own criteria for the list submitted, and I have no business pretending that I’m seasoned enough to suggest the 20 greatest anythings, let alone movies, based purely on ‘objective’ analysis. 

“But after perhaps as many as 25 viewings of Steven Spielberg’s notorious big-budget, epic comedy since its release in December 1979 I’ve come to the conclusion that if this movie doesn’t in some way represent what makes a “great” movie, then I need a radically revised dictionary. 

“Spielberg has intimated in the past, and it has been reported endlessly, that he felt like he was losing control during the production of 1941, that he was in over his head and that the production was subsumed by creative anarchy and/or at the very least a lack of consistent direction. Well, I would submit that the last thing I would want to see is a movie about the freewheeling anarchy of an optimistic America, under enemy besiegement that is only partially an imagined product of a volatile cocktail of patriotism and paranoia, that is itself measured and controlled and tamped down around the edges. The blistering satiric punch of the script, penned by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale when the duo still had some real fire in their bellies, is exacerbated by anarchy—anarchy is its fuel, its lifeblood. 1941 is exhilarating in part precisely because you feel Spielberg flying by the seat of his pants and still marshaling some of the most marvelous, breathtaking comedy (and musical) set pieces imaginable amidst the chaos. Even the perceived bloat of that production seems to work in its favor, not, as traditionally presumed, against it.

“But 1941 is not, unlike John Landis’s similarly indulgent The Blues Brothers, all just chaos and cacophony and waste, nor does 1941 share that film’s insistent deadpan delivery of its best material. There’s an eye-boggling grace in play too, from the way Wild Bill Kelso’s fighter plane is shot gliding through the sky over the Grand Canyon or shooting out across the night-lit skies above a twinkling (miniature) Los Angeles; to the sight of a bomb rolling toward a gaggle of reporters gathered at Santa Monica Airport to welcome General Stillwell to town; to the way Kelso leaps up onto the wing of his plane and tumbles over the other side to the ground; or to the sight of a Ferris wheel unmoored from its structure careening down Santa Monica Pier like a gigantic ghostly toy escaping from the clutches of its owner. 

“There’s wit in a miniature-scale skewering of the bigotry of the day when a racist soldier gets his face smeared with engine smoke and ‘switches places’ with a Negro soldier who has been similarly dusted with flour (You must see the movie to understand how this comes about), and in a simple moment during which the smoke puffing from the end of Kelso’s mangled stogie is synchronized to the momentarily ethereal orchestration of John Williams’ hilarious, inspired score (one of his best, easily).

“And there is, of course, the movie’s centerpiece, justifiably praised by even many of the movie’s detractors, the thrilling USO dance sequence, matched for musical buoyance and insouciance in Spielberg’s career only by the ‘Anything Goes’ number that opens his equally maligned (and equally masterful) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At one point, leading up to a key change in the ‘Swing, Swing, Swing’ number, Spielberg uses a lighter-than-air crane shot to lift the camera up above the dance floor, where it is revealed that the dancers are hoofing it on the painted image of Hitler and Tojo, a shot which is again followed immediately by a similar vertically-- and then horizontally-- oriented camera move up and over the backs of some of the orchestra players and out across the floor above the dancers. The simple beauty of this combination of camera and action and musical choreography is so blissful, so chill-inducing that the last time I saw the movie it caused me to burst into tears.

1941 showcases a Spielberg not yet burdened by the need to make grand statements, whose entertainer instinct remained at the forefront despite whatever personal insecurities he may have had during its production. And yet time has proven, at least to me, that the director, who seems here to be firing completely on instinct and willing to look foolish for perhaps the only time in his career, might have been better served had he not always been so keen on following the guidelines prescribing what was expected of him. (Temple of Doom displays a similar disregard for expectations.) Like all of Spielberg’s best movies (including Jaws, Duel, A.I., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, War Horse and even Munich), 1941 is evidence of the director playing with all the Hollywood toys at his disposal, bending or sometimes outright disregarding the rules to his own purpose and creating something unique, something unrepeatable, something great in the process.” ~ Dennis Cozzalio

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