Once again, ordered by what I thought of them. The further down the list you go, the stronger I recommend. I wrote a bit more than the usual blurb about Rogue One because it’s Star Wars. And there weren’t any films this time I thought were awful. Everything’s got something worth checking out.
As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys.
Comedian Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer) stars in Trainwreck (2015), a mean-spirited by-the-numbers rom-com with one or two really good laughs. Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) directs and Bill Hader (SNL) co-stars as the perfect but vaguely awkward man who lets an alcoholic Amy treat him like garbage until she decides to just be with him. It’s a story of a character’s personal growth, but if you never really like the character you won’t care and if you’re not sure if she’s even learned anything you may be hard-pressed to call it an arc. I don’t care what the genders are, people being selfish and crappy to each other is neither romantic nor charming. Also features Alison Brie, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Tilda Swinton, Randall Park, and Dave Attell.
I did not get Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (2015). I did not dislike it. I just didn’t quite get it. Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths), sporting a truly wonderful mustache, is a quiet man at a surreal mansion getaway where tenants are required to find a mate within 45 days lest they be turned into an animal (Colin chooses a lobster). I think it’s a metaphor for the social stigmas of being single, but it was all a little too dry and slow for me. A tepid, but refreshingly strange outing to the cinema. Also stars Rachel Weicz, Michael Smiley, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw.
It took me awhile to get into the rhyming dialogue and beat poetry delivery of Spike Lee’s Chi-raq (2015). Lysistrata (played by the fabulous Teyonah Parris) starts a revolution to end gang violence in the bloody streets of Chicago by getting all women to deny their men sex of any kind until the shootings stop. It’s a bit stagey at times (in a stylized but awkward way that doesn’t always work), but the energy and humor and pulse of desperation make this movie worth a look. A bit tonally uneven, which is a shame because I feel like there’s a great film in there somewhere. Also features Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Steve Harris, Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson.
Guilty pleasures and amiable lectures:
Quentin Tarantino. An obnoxious egotist who makes some fun movies. The Hateful Eight (2015) looks great and packs some great people into its tiny cast. A bounty hunter called The Hangman (Kurt Russell) escorting his bounty (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to her execution gets snowbound in a shifty cabin full of untrustworthy characters. The moments of tension are great—although nothing close to Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained—and it has a few surprises, but when every character is so hateful it can become hard to care about what happens to them. Samuel L. Jackson is half the reason the movie is as entertaining as it is. Jackson has a fantastic mental showdown with Bruce Dern’s character too. Also stars Tim Roth, Walter Goggins, and Michael Madsen.
Samurai Cop (1991) is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. It truly is one of the BEST bad movies out there and you owe it to yourself to watch it now. The surprise sequel Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015) is decidedly underwhelming by comparison. The film spends a lot of its time winking at the audience and dusting off all of the old cast for their own quality moments of varying hilarity. Instead of a crappy old school B-action movie we get a seriously incomprehensible Lynchian mess of flashy colors and lady murder. In a post screening Q&A, Matt Karedas (Joe “Samurai Cop” Marshall, himself) expressed disappointment with the finished product and said he was uncomfortable murdering so many women in the film, feeling it was against Joe’s character. For however impossible the plot is to follow, I loved a lot of the cheesy winks and wacky, forced cameos. Bai Ling and The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau add a lot of over-the-top zany surreality to the finished product, but seeing Mark Frazer and so many of the original cast reprising their roles in this stupid film was just what I needed. It looks like everyone is having fun. And this movie actually gave me newfound respect for Bai Ling. She plays it well beyond eleven. Fans of the original will undoubtedly be as dismayed and baffled as Matt, but should check it out anyway for a stupid adventure with your favorite cult movie heroes.
Jason Strouse’s quiet little comedy-drama about an ineffably likable high school teacher (played wonderfully by Matt Letscher) is sweet. It’s charming. It’s actually a bit too clean and simple at times. But Teacher of the Year (2014) manages to more closely resemble the anxieties of actual teacher life than most teacher flicks. Mitch Carter (Letscher) is a great educator who has to make a choice between staying where he’s always been or taking a bigger job across the country. The cast is good (Keegan-Michael Key and the Sklar Brothers add needed hilarity) and it has enough satisfying character moments to eclipse some of its contrivances. It’s not pretentious and it should make you smile, whether you’re in education or not. Co-stars Tamlyn Tomita, Jamie Kaler, Larry Joe Campbell, and Sunny Mabrey.
A bit more on board:
I love the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) and even lower tier Coens is still watchable (Ladykillers is pushing it though). Hail, Caesar! (2016) is not a masterpiece, but it is breezy and fun. The story is pulled in perhaps too many directions (The Big Lebowski made it work). Ultimately we may be a little fuzzy on what was being said and why we should care (Burn After Reading did it better). It’s all rather showy and cartoony (Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona were more successful here). It’s about old Hollywood (Barton Fink, while weird, was far more engaging). It tries to depict a crisis of faith (A Serious Man, anyone?). In the end, Hail, Caesar! is a series of wacky scenes vaguely connected and told in the mock-buildup fashion of classic Coen shaggy dog tales. Not great. But not bad. Stars Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich (possibly the best part of the show), and a host of cameos from Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Clancey Brown, Wayne Knight, Christopher Lambert, etc. So what’s it about? The red scare? The calculated fakeness of showbiz? Who cares? Eat your popcorn.
Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015) is a gleefully dark Christmas story full of demonic gingerbread men, ghoulish holiday gifts, and the wicked elf ruler of them all. A boy accidentally curses his family’s stressful yuletide proceedings when he summons the dark version of Santa Claus: Krampus. It’s silly and simple, but the surreal sense of dread, coupled with the right tone of comedy, propel this anti-holiday flick beyond Gremlins (perhaps). Did I mention the fantastic creature effects? The evil Jack-in-the-box and the nightmarish lord of them all look wonderful! The use of puppets and suited monsters definitely add to the uneasy texture of this kooky flick. Features an extended stop-motion flashback sequence and Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Conchata Ferrell, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman.
What if you could get the two lowest FIFA ranked teams in soccer and have them compete against each other on the same exact day as the World Cup final? Two Dutch soccer fans did just that and made it into a documentary called The Other Final (2003). If you like underdogs, this is for you. It’s underdogs versus underdogs! Watching the sadly forgotten teams of Bhutan and Montserrat meet on the patchy green amicably and in the spirit of pure sportsmanship is a charming little departure from big commercial athletics. As a bonus, I learned more about the countries of Bhutan and Montserrat than I ever knew before.
Let’s take it up a notch:
I’m a Stephen Chow fan. Shaolin Soccer and Kung-fu Hustle are masterpieces of comic fantasy. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) is a fantastically innovative adventure and compelling retelling of the classic Chinese legend. While some of the ambitious visuals may falter beneath occasionally uneven special effects, one must applaud Chow’s typically confident direction of the impossible mayhem. Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand in this action-packed tale of demon hunters and romance unrequited. Like Chow’s previous films mentioned, Journey to the West is accessible to children for its monsters and fantasy but complex and surprising in its narrative cogs. At the end of it all, I found myself both exhausted and delighted at having seen something unique. Shu Qi, Wen Zhang, and Huang Bo star.
Kristen Wiig (SNL) plays Alice Klieg, a mentally ill woman who wins the lottery and decides to make a show based on herself (her thoughts, her memories, her hobbies, etc.) in Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me (2014). Honestly, I can’t imagine a single other person playing this character. Wiig straddles a weird line between comedy and sympathy for mental illness. The usual obvious satirical fodder of television politics rears its head too, but the real heart of the film comes from the endearing character and Wiig’s performance. There’s a lot of goodies in this clever little movie that I’ll just recommend you watch it. Also features Joan Cusack, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, and Alan Tudyk.
If you got excited by Tommy Wiseau’s mention in Samurai Cop 2, then you’re going to love this: The Room fan Rick Harper got deep into Wiseau’s world a few years back. So deep they may not be on speaking terms anymore. So deep he tracked down most of the original cast and crew and made a documentary about the famously awful cult movie. I had the special privilege of seeing the world premier of Room Full of Spoons (2016) in Madrid. If watching The Room brings you joy; if Tommy Wiseau fascinates you with his captivating oddness; if you’ve ever had questions about how the film was made or where Tommy comes from…watch this documentary.
2016 Oscar winning film about the Catholic priest pedophilia cover up, Spotlight (2015), is solidly cast, well written, and an important reminder of the significance of investigative journalism in our world. This is like the sister film of All the President’s Men (1976). Not merely satisfied with looking into the interviewing process of gathering data via cold calls, personal interviews, and reading through old documents, Spotlight, like All the President’s Men, deals a lot with the nature of the politics game and media strategies involved in a high profile, high risk scoop dependent on secrecy and facts. And the personalities uncovering the story bring added realism to this slow-burn drama. Stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, and John Slattery.
I gave a needed re-watch to a film I never really got on board with as a child. I saw the original Star Wars trilogy when I was 4 or 5 years old. Our home did not celebrate the knockoffs I later came to love. Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars have since become films I frequently recommend. Knowing this, and somewhat prompted by “Trailers From Hell“, I gave The Last Starfighter (1984) another chance. No, not all of the effects hold up (some of the earliest examples of CGI), but it is such an amiable breath of fresh air that it hit me just right. A video-gamer named Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) living in a dusty trailer park gets a surprise visit from a strange alien visitor (The Music Man‘s Robert Preston) sent to recruit him to defend a distant planet. Alex’s alien mentor, Grig (played by Dan O’Herlihy), is an understandably favorite character. It’s basically everything you want it to be. It’s unapologetically fun and squarely 80s sci-fi cheese. Maybe never confused with a truly “great” film, I submit we retain slots for the wonderfully good.
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) is assuredly not everyone’s cup of tea. It is a hypnotic, elliptical enigma. If you thought Primer was alienating and indecipherable, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Categorized as a sci-fi movie, imdb.com summarizes the plot thusly: A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives. Which is more than the film itself clearly communicates and more succinct than I could blurb. For whatever reason, I enjoyed it immensely. But then…I also liked Beyond the Black Rainbow and Under the Skin a lot too.
High-Rise (2015) is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel. Tom Hiddleston plays a businessman who moves into the latest architectural wonder created by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). It’s got all the modern conveniences and it is stylish beyond compare, but things gradually devolve into anarchy as the classes and perceived entitlements of its tenants begin to clash. This is not Snowpiercer. This is not an action movie. The objectives are intentionally vague. It’s brand of satire is unabashedly dark and murky. It’s sexy and weird and claustrophobic. Also stars Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss.
Here’s a slow-burn that caught me off guard. I went to see Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) knowing pretty much nothing about it. I think that helped. The story of a group of estranged friends reuniting under cryptic circumstances—and what increasingly feels like a cult pitch—sucks you in and holds you under as the tension and suspense uncomfortably builds before a final act that does not disappoint. The driveway to this California dinner party is lined with warning signs. Watch it. Stars Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, and John Carroll Lynch.
This is the end:
After all that, what could I list as my top three films? (As my whims sit these evening anyway.)
S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut has been lauded. And for good reason. Bone Tomahawk (2015) blows Tarantino’s latest film out of the water. Kurt Russell is Sheriff Hunt. He and his elderly deputy (Richard Jenkins), a greasy gunslinger (Matthew Fox), and one man with a broken [possibly gangrenous] leg (Patrick Wilson) go on a rescue mission to save the cripple’s wife (Lili Simmons) from a mysterious tribe of albino cannibal troglodytes. Valley of the Gwangi was cowboys versus dinosaurs. Now we got cowboys versus cave-people. And for however schlocky the synopsis may sound, this is a genuinely good movie. It is sensitive and earthy. More drama than gore-fest (though, there’s a bit of that too). It’s a well-written surprise whose humor and heart make it more than just that movie with the cannibal troglodytes in the wild west. And can we just give all of the acting awards to Richard Jenkins for his performance already? The man is glorious. Also features Sid Haig, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, James Tolkan, and Sean Young.
How does a kinetic comedy-drama about a jealousy & meth-fueled transgender sex-worker on Christmas Eve in Hollywood filmed entirely on iPhone 5s sound? The very first scene of Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) sets up everything you need to know: Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) just got out of prison and just found out her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her with a cisgender chick (Mickey O’Hagan). In addition we have the subplots of Sin-Dee’s best friend (also trans, also a sex worker), Alexandra (Mya Taylor), quiet ambitions of being a singer and an Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian) trying to avoid his family on Christmas Eve to find Alexandra. The whole chaotic pot comes to a boil and we, the audience, are there for the show. Maybe you don’t feel like you relate to any of these characters. Perhaps it all sounds too much like an episode of Cops. Or maybe you don’t mind walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and observing their lives and their dreams and their problems. These characters are not the typical archetypes of American cinema. It may take a moment to step into their world and get used to the frenetic tempo and saturated colors, but perhaps you shall be rewarded.
Nabwana I.G.G. has been making insane, low-budget action movies in the slums of Uganda for years. I was introduced to his work via Alan Ssali Hofmanis, an American who moved to Uganda and dedicated his life to helping Nabwana complete more films. Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010), on all accounts, could not be a good movie. But it is. The plot is all but incomprehensible and the effects and props are fakey-fake. But this was made in the slums. For nothing. And a mad, anarchic joy permeates every moment of this glorious, cacophonous proceedings. Unlike The Room, which I love because it is terrible, I love Captain Alex because it was so alien and new and wonderful. By way of the Voice Joker (gleeful narrator who vaguely helps tell the story between wisecracks), we are given a glimpse into life in the slums and, more tellingly, their interpretation of American action cinema, the genre they were first introduced to and the one they choose to troll. They are having fun. Infectious fun. I can’t guarantee that you will like it as much as I did. But after hearing the history of slum cinema from Alan and viewing this feature on the big screen at midnight I only know one thing: I can’t wait to see Nabwana’s next film in which I may have a brief cameo getting my own head blown up by the Ebola Hunter. Call me crazy, this was my favorite movie-going experience in awhile.
That’s my list. Disagree? What did you see?
As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science.
I actually had to stop watching Mesa of Lost Women (1953) before the third act. It is a slog to get through. As much as I enjoy some of the hammy acting and weird kinkiness (the tarantula woman’s sexy dance was funny watching with grandma), the poor quality of the picture and sound and slow nothingness of the pace made it difficult to follow. I like actor Harmon Stevens’ placid and infantile hypnotized grin after one of the spider women stabs him (with something??), but then it was depressing seeing a sad looking Jackie Coogan (Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester) as the mad scientist who operates out of some weird Mexican cave. No idea how it ended. Did I mention the terrible two measures of tensionless score that’s stuck on repeat?
Ever think about how Casablanca would be improved by being set in a post apocalyptic future and giving Bogart massive gazongas? Well Barb Wire (1996) starring Pamela Anderson Lee may be just the thing for you. Pam is an ex-freedom fighter and a club owner and a stripper who moonlights as an agent/assassin and a hooker. It’s as ridiculous as you can imagine, and I guarantee you that whatever you’re picturing in your head is better, sexier, and more coherent than what they filmed. Despite trying so hard to be sexy and action packed, it just comes off as cold and stilted for the most part. I did like Big Fatso (Andre Rosey Brown) and a lot of the line deliveries were so bad they were hilarious. Udo Kier, Clint Howard, and Boba Fett’s dad co-star.
I didn’t expect much from the David Carradine sword-and-sorcery vehicle literally called The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) and boy was I overestimating it. It’s basically a ripoff of Yojimbo (or Fistful of Dollars) but set in a poorly defined fantasy world. Where Mesa of Lost Women was hard to watch, this one is at least entertainingly bad (for the most part). At least there’s tons of needless and degrading nudity (so much so that there’s even a dancer who has four breasts—like they couldn’t find a way to get enough tits into this movie already) and at least two cheesy puppet monsters.
I Didn’t Entirely Get It:
The premise for Kon Ichikawa’s Being Two Isn’t Easy (1962) is cute enough: daily life as seen alternately from a 2 year old’s perspective and that of his parents. It’s not a bad little film, I just found it somewhat tedious. At best it’s an interesting look into Japanese life in the 60s, but the baby narration was too eloquent and all-knowing to be taken seriously and the family drama felt bland (but maybe that was the point??).
Sorry, 1960s Japan. Kazui Nihonmatsu’s Genocide (1968) wasn’t wacky enough. Oh, it’s wacky alright, and I would recommend it, but it never lives up to it’s gorgeously surreal title sequence. A disaster movie about bugs staging a revolt against humanity could stand more bug photography (a la Phase IV) and less loony pantomiming…although that does add to its silly charm. In fairness, any plot that features a female holocaust survivor turned evil mad scientist who wants to poison humanity with bug juice to make them go insane and die has to at least be seen. It’s silly. It’s zany. It’s that kinda fun B-movie, not-everything-makes-sense sort of thing. But a movie about killer bugs needs more bugs. One point of interest is the starkly anti-American position it takes. In that regard it reminded me a little bit of the Korean film The Host. Charlie is great. If you see it, you’ll learn who Charlie is.
John Maclean’s Slow West (2015) is a spectacularly photographed arthouse western about a young Scottish man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching the untamed American frontier for the woman he loves with the help of a cynical outlaw (Michael Fassbender). It’s a slow-going movie more akin to Dead Man than Silverado, and it is littered with strange western tableaus. I liked it just fine until in a scene that figuratively pours salt in our hero’s wounds he literally has a jar marked “salt” get broken over his head and poured into his wounds. It was such a laughable, on-the-nose moment that it took me out of the drama faster than Japan’s Maglev train. Not a literal train. That would be silly. Recommended for fans of artsy neo-westerns and great cinematography.
Call me a Philistine. I don’t care. I get why Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) is such an influential science fiction film, but I regrettably confess that having already seen Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (which pilfered the plot of La Jetée) I was a little let down. La Jetée is a French short film told entirely with still black and white photographs and voice-over narration. It chronicles a man who is haunted by childhood memories and is made to travel through time. It’s good. It’s told in an innovative way. But ultimately (don’t hate me, film people) I liked the Bruce Willis movie better and found it more detailed and dramatically satisfying.
Who’s more affable and likable and all-American than Henry Fonda? [Well, Jimmy Stewart, but that’s the subject of another day.] Honestly, I never got the appeal of Henry Fonda. He was always so slow and serious to be a believable person (although I do enjoy a lot of his movies—Young Mr. Lincoln being one of them). Mister Roberts (1955) is one of those gung-ho American navy movies your grandfather watches because he was in the navy (at least it is with my grandfather). Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men), James Cagney (White Heat), William Powell (The Thin Man), and Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross) star in the movie about a real swell officer (Fonda) on a ship too far from battle to see action, the crew who loved him, and the commanding officer who was a bit of dick to everybody (Cagney). It’s got a few really great scenes, a few really hokey scenes, and it does feel a bit too long. It’s more Operation Petticoat than M*A*S*H. Soapy, but it’s worth a look just for some of the psychological showdowns between Fonda and Cagney.
More Worth It:
John Patrick Shanley adapts his own stage play to the screen with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Doubt (2008) is an austere little movie about a no-nonsense nun (Streep in her best Judge Judy voice) who suspects a priest (Hoffman) of molesting a young boy, but she has no proof and we—the audience—are not entirely sure who to believe. It’s a simple and effective drama with good acting and cinematography. Fans of the play will like it and fans of movies that do not give easy answers will too.
[Full disclosure: I moved to Spain last week. I saw this movie in Spanish and I don’t really speak Spanish, but I think I got the gist. So maybe this is a testament to visual storytelling?] I didn’t like Despicable Me enough to bother with the sequel, but I was consistently entertained by the adorable gibberish, cutesy antics, and energetic animation of Minions (2015). It was creative and funny and I liked watching the weird characters get in and out of trouble. I also enjoyed some of the sixties tunes. It’s a different premise for sure: a species that evolved a psychological need to be subservient to a powerful master (preferably evil) searches for the perfect leader to ally with.
Shôhei Imamura is a legendary Japanese filmmaker whose work I have not really explored yet. Boo, me. I know. Vengeance is Mine (1979) is a bleak portrait of a thief and murderer named Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), based on real life criminal, Akira Nishiguchi. It explores his relationship with his family and a few women he cons. It’s not a sentimental film. It doesn’t glamorize crime. There are really no positive characters in the film (I did like the old lady who had been a jailbird herself). It’s gritty and gloriously shot. Fans of Japanese cinema or crime drama should not miss this one.
I don’t know why I never really got into zombie movies. Especially when I really do enjoy a lot of them (White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, etc.). Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made his directing feature debut with The Return of the Living Dead (1985). It’s a fantastic bit of horror comedy, fully embracing its zaniness but still giving us some decent writing and fun characters. Two employees accidentally release a canister-o-zombie and things only escalate at an alarming rate from there. The zombies can’t really be killed so that makes it a little trickier. Classic fun.
H.P. Lovecraft gets adapted a lot. I have no idea what the original story looked like, but Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) directs one crazy, slimy, prosthetic-filled science fiction horror yarn with From Beyond (1986). An unexplained “science machine” reveals another dimension filled with phosphorescent flying eels that are surrounding us at all times. When sexual deviant, Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), gets his head bitten off by an unseen monster, his assistant (Jeffrey Combs) gets institutionalized unless he can prove his sanity to a kind doctor (Barbara Crampton) and a cop named Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree). Returning to the attic in the mysterious house, they get multiple scary encounters with Pretorius’s new, monstrous form. The movie is absolutely nuts and I loved it…probably loved it more because so little of it makes any sense. The special effects are great and gross.
Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more forms than almost any other fictional character. Hammer Studios’ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) was not the first nor the last adaptation of this specific Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, but it might be the best known and liked. Directed by Terence Fisher (he did a lot of Hammer horror movies) and starring Hammer icons Peter Cushing (Star Wars) as Holmes and Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings) as Sir Henry, it has all the Victorian style and spooky atmosphere Hammer was famous for. A great outing for lovers of the legendary sleuth.
I had reviewed Island of Souls and Island of Dr. Moreau in past lists. Souls (1932) being fantastically good and Moreau (1996) being a baffling, disjointed disaster of a movie. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) is a documentary that seeks to elucidate us all as to what happened and how everything went so so very wrong on the set of the infamous adaptation of H.G. Wells starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. David Gregory’s doc features extensive interviews with cast and crew, giving incredible insights into what it was like working on this nightmare project and how everything fell apart at an exponential rate. If you loved Lost in La Mancha or ever saw the 1996 film you owe it to yourself to watch this. It’s absolutely bonkers what went on.
Ride the Pink Horse (1947) is an interesting film noir. Our hero, Gagin (director Robert Montgomery), is an unlikable small time crook and army vet on the hunt for Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) and the money he feels Hugo owes him. What makes the film memorable is the dusty New Mexican town setting and some of the colorful side characters like Pancho (Thomas Gomez), Pila (Wanda Hendrix), and an old FBI agent (Art Smith)…not to mention the giant marionette from your nightmares, Zozobra (god of bad luck), paraded through town at night only to be immolated by the villagers as part of their local festival. If you enjoy noir, this one comes highly recommended.
My Favorites This Time Around:
Another zombie movie. Why do I keep thinking I hate zombies? Before Ip Man, Wilson Yip directed a low-budget teenage horror comedy set in a Hong Kong shopping mall called Bio-Zombie (1998). It’s great fun. When there’s no onscreen action, there’s plenty of wonderful character business propelling the plot. Our main characters, Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee), are lowlifes, thieves, bullies, and obnoxious dressers. They pal up with two sexy ladies, Jelly (Suk Yin Lai) and Rolls (Angela Ying-Ying Tong) to battle the hordes of advancing zombies. There’s also a lovable sushi chef nerd (Wayne Lee) who brings a lot of comic tragedy to the already zany project. I highly recommend this Hong Kong zombie flick.
I have loved every one of Satyajit Ray’s films that I’ve seen. (Check out The Apu Trilogy if you are unfamiliar with him.) Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God (1979) is an Indian detective film featuring sleuth Feluda (Soumitra Chatterjee, Apur Sansar) and his two friends—his young cousin (Siddhartha Chatterjee) and the pulp novelist (Santosh Dutta)—trying to locate a missing statuette. The mystery is full of great locations, rich scenes, spooky meetings, and some levity. The characters are fun and, coming from America, it’s sort of exciting to see an original Indian genre film with no songs. One memorably suspenseful scene features the comic relief novelist facing an old knife thrower who may be losing his sight and is definitely suffering from a severe cough. This is actually a sequel to an earlier detective movie featuring Feluda, but I haven’t seen it.
Hungarian filmmaker, Kornél Mundruczó, takes you on a gritty and uncomfortable journey through the eyes of a canine named Hagan in White God (2014). A young girl, Lilli (Zsófia Psotta), and her furry best friend have to live with her grouchy divorced father (Sándor Zsótér). Not wanting the dog—and the city not wanting mixed breeds—he gets rid of Hagan. While Lilli goes through a lot of growing up and looking for her dog, Hagan goes on a brutal journey through serious abuse on the streets and the world of dog fighting before finally leading a Spartacus-esque revolution of death-row mongrels, exacting revenge on their tormentors as they storm through the city. It’s about growing up, remembering how to be a family, and about how we treat outsiders. The cinematography and performances are great (both human and dog) and the tension keeps on building. Read any metaphor you want into it or just take it as is. It’s brilliant filmmaking.
And now…once again…the last few movies I saw in the order of how good I thought they were. Please, correct me.
I don’t care how loved this movie is. Benny & Joon (1993) is pandering schmaltz. Having said that, it’s much better than you’re average schmaltz. Johnny Depp plays an eccentric man-pixie whose off-beat whimsy showcases an almost unreasonable obsession with silent film comedies. He falls in love with a woman who is actually crazy (played by Mary Stuart Masterson). Instead of wacky hijinks, we actually get a more believable confrontation with some of the consequences of mental illness—including a brother (Aiden Quinn) who loves both of them, but above all wants to protect his sister. Why do I put this so low on the list? Admittedly, it’s not terrible (and who doesn’t love The Proclaimers?), but for me it runs afoul of Patch Adams-ifying mental illness as well as drama. I didn’t hate it, but there wasn’t much there to begin with for me to have any feelings about one way or the other. It’s ultimately a little too neat, despite some of the risks it gets really close to taking.
Dawn of Gross:
These next two films I actually actively dislike. Which is to say I feel far more strongly about them than Benny & Joon, but Benny & Joon was innocuous and forgettable, and there’s something weirdly appealing about devastating, grotesque misfires that burn holes in your memory. I’ll come clean though. After seeing one of these (you’ll know which one), I may not be in my right mind.
Alan Parker (Pink Floyd The Wall, Angel Heart) isn’t a bad director. And part of me admires the ambition and potential behind this project. The Road to Wellville (1994) is a period comedy about the zany Dr. Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins with big, fake teeth and a Col. Sanders drawl) and his upstate health haven where he promotes loopy diet and exercise regimens and maddeningly sexless lifestyles to all his patients. Bridget Fonda takes her ailing and unassailably horny husband, Matthew Broderick, to Kellogg’s dystopic Wonka-verse to return him to full health. So many uninteresting subplots and genuinely cool contraptions abound in this scatological romp through penis inspection, excrement handling, powdered derriere jiggles, failed breakfast formula sputum, and sexual revolution revelations. Despite some truly impressive sets and a refreshingly unromantic period atmosphere, the lack of effective humor or plot and the abundance of poop references make this perhaps a well-intentioned but failed endeavor. The cast also includes Lara Flynn Boyle’s jaundiced breasts, muddy Dana Carvey’s toothless smile, John Neville not playing Baron Munchausen, multiple takes of Michael Lerner regurgitating ground corn meal into a bucket, and John Cusack.
I think I hate this movie. I definitely dislike it more than Benny & Joon and The Road to Wellville. Why do I rate it higher? I fear this movie broke me. It’s been over a month and I still vividly see every single gross, disgusting, cringe-worthy, dry-heave inducing scene. In detail. Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers) wrote, directed, and starred in Nothing But Trouble (1991), an unflinchingly loathsome cinematic spectacle worthy of inspection at Dr. Kellogg’s clinic. As a kid I remember seeing this in the video store all the time and wanting to see it. The cover looked so weird and it had Dan Aykroyd in it! I only recently saw it and for that I am glad. Lord only knows how messed I’d be if I had seen it as a young’n. Demi Moore convinces rich jerk, Chevy Chase, to drive her to Atlantic City for some reason. They bring along two wacky Brazilian siblings, but on a detour through the back roads of New Jersey they get busted for running a red light and are escorted by John Candy to Valkenvania’s dilapidated courthouse for trial. The century-old judge, played by Aykroyd (who actually resembles Rev. Billy Graham, but with—not kidding—a severed penis for a nose), refuses to let them go. An onslaught of dark, grotesque nonsense masquerading as comedy ensues. John Candy in drag; a Rube Goldbergian roller coaster that strips human flesh from bone; two slimy, half-naked man-babies who live in—and presumably on—garbage; a random appearance by Digital Underground featuring Tupac; and a legitimately uncomfortably irrational romance between Moore and Chase makeup the landscape of this revolting and incredibly expensive production. The story is inane. The imagery is willfully gross. And it is only as unfunny as it is perplexing. I hate it, but I fear it tainted my soul with its toxic poison. For as much as I wanted to, I could never look away from the screen. I would sooner watch Benny & Joon and The Road to Wellville again, but I would sooner watch Nothing But Trouble again with other people in the room just to explain to them how terrible the movie really is. This movie really is awful in every way, but it left such a huge dent in my psyche I have to put it above the two previous films.
Breath. It’s Behind Us Now:
Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) was a pleasant, little movie with a pleasing cast. I liked it. It was cute. I accepted the coincidences and contrived conundrums out of simple enjoyment in the writing and the performances from Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, and Analeigh Tipton. That is all.
Anthony Quinn has played almost every nationality so why not Italian? Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremberg) directed the WWII comedy-drama about a small Italian village that must work together to hide over a million bottles of wine from German soldiers using the town as a base. The premise is good, no? The scenery is nice, the cast is fine (Quinn, Anna Magnani, Giancarlo Giannini, Hardy Krüger), the production is attractive, but there’s something missing in The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969). For a movie that’s pretty much The Hiding Place but with alcohol instead of Jews, there’s not much suspense or sense of danger. Most of the comedy is not particularly hilarious either. Quinn was much better in Zorba the Greek and Guns of Navarone. Here he’s way too bombastic. The movie goes on way too long and, ultimately, it’s plot was a little too close to the far superior Whiskey Galore! (1949). It’s pleasant enough, but watch Whiskey Galore! instead. It’s funnier and more suspenseful.
Now We’re Cookin’:
House of Wax (1953) is widely regarded as one of Vincent Price’s best films and a superior remake to 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. I may be in the minority, but I actually like the 1933 one better. Michael Curtiz’s (Casablanca, Captain Blood) direction, Ray Rennahan’s (Gone With the Wind) cinematography, and Anton Grot’s (The Sea Hawk) set designs are great. Horror staples Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill star in the story of a disgraced sculptor who yearns to cast real wax-dipped humans in his comeback museum. Technically, I think Doctor X (1932) is the better film, but I like the lady reporter played by Glenda Farrell better than the guy reporter in X and the ending is really good. It’s weightless, pulpy fun. If you’ve seen my previous lists you know I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies. Naturally, I love it.
If you’ve ever wanted to see one man pretending to be Richard Nixon screaming and crying in a room for an hour and a half then Robert Altman’s (M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye) Secret Honor (1984) is right for you. Philip Baker Hall, looking nothing like Nixon (not that that ever stopped Anthony Hopkins), is Nixon. Disgraced, he rambles a fractured and twisted stream-of-consciousness litany of his past shortcomings and present rationalizations. It’s well acted and humanizing in its portrayal of the complicated former president. It’s a better drama than a political film, in my humble opinion.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014) is seriously the best feature-length adaptation of a Jay Ward cartoon. Not that that’s saying a whole lot [George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle]. Director Rob Minkoff pulls off a breezy, hip, smart time-travel comedy-adventure that retains the spirit of the original cartoon show. The puns and history warp would have been enough, but the animation, exceptional voice work (most notably Ty Burrell), and the heartbeat underneath make it more than a passing whim. This was more fun than I expected.
I imagine Interstellar (2014) will not be nearly as fun on a TV screen. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) takes us on a space adventure with equal parts awe and suspense. The cinematography, score, special effects, and emotional core make the film resonate beyond all the nit-picky shortcomings (like how come Michael Caine doesn’t age? I mean, I guess he’s sitting in a chair now. Is that alone meant to convince me he’s 30 years older?). I liked the robots, I liked the look, I like the music, and I liked the ending. There’s stuff I didn’t like, but who cares? For all the movies where they go inside a black hole, this is easily the best. Although, like Jay Ward film adaptations, it’s not saying much. No, that’s technically not a black hole in 2001: a Space Odyssey.
Surreal Italian horror/thriller films from the 70s are sort of their own genre. A Lizard in Woman’s Skin (1971) is a fine example of what Americans think of when they think of the giallo subgenre. Director Lucio Fulci paints a hyper-sexual, psychedelic mystery thriller complete with copious amounts of nudity and drug induced hallucinations. Despite all the lesbian orgy scenes I was somewhat disengaged from the film…until the chase scene through the cellars and cathedral organ, complete with hundreds of bats getting stuck in the she-protagonist’s hair. It’s wonderful. The weird, disemboweled dog medical experiment fever-dream is pretty much seared into my brain. The cutest thing about this movie though? It’s sort of a Reefer Madness for LSD. It’s adorable.
The Cable Car Elevates Us Even Higher:
WWII was a brutal time in history, but it got us some pretty damn good movies. Carol Reed (The Third Man, Our Man in Havana) gave us a wartime espionage suspense thriller starring Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood, and Paul Henreid that features a climactic cable car chase. Even while playing a cold double agent Harrison still manages to be fey. It feels sort of like Shanghai Express but directed by Alfred Hitchcock and with Nazis. Long story short: watch Night Train to Munich (1940). This movie also features a couple of British stock characters (Charters and Caldicott) who love cricket. This humorous duo appeared in several English movies around this time and they play a very significant role in this.
I need to see more movies directed by Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron). He has regrettably been a cinematic blindspot that I have been meaning to catch up with. Danton (1983) chronicles the final days of Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu) during the French Revolution. Maximillien de Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) is his political enemy during this time of great squalor and social unrest. If you liked Les Misérables but wanted less singing and more heads getting guillotined then this is the movie for you. Sumptuous costumes and fancy sets bring the history to life, but I can’t say you won’t be frustrated by the injustices endured by the characters.
I was recommended a documentary by a friend. I trust his judgement. I watched Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008) without doing any research on it. I had no idea what it was about beyond a filmmaker (Kurt Kuenne) making a movie-letter to a boy about a dad who had been killed. Throughout the experience I was moved, angered, and brought to tears. I’d actually rather not give too much away. Probably best if you watch this fresh and let the frustrating emotional roller coaster drag you along for the heart-breaking ride.
The Top Three:
Black Cat, White Cat (1998) is a Yugoslavian comedy about gypsies, gangsters, double-crosses, weddings, and hiding bodies. Director Emir Kusturica (Underground) brings the wacky story to life with a pleasing ramshackle aesthetic. Geese covered in crap and gold teeth better be your thing. Matko Destanov (Bajram Severdzan) borrows money from old, wheelchair-bound hood, Grga Pitić (Sabri Sulejmani), under the false pretense that his father, Zarije (Zabit Memedov), is dead. He recruits his cocaine-loving pal, Dadan Karambolo (Srdjan Todorovic), for a hustle-job to steal a train carrying oil. Dadan two-times Matko and puts him into debt unless he agrees to let his son, Zare (Florijan Ajdini), marry his dwarf sister, Afrodita (Salija Ibraimova), but Zare is in love with Ida (Branka Katic). To the erratic tempo of a twangy jaw-harp, the plot propels onward. Black Cat, White Cat is a fun movie with enjoyable characters, grit, humor, and even a little warmth.
I like Jack Benny. His understated style of comedy appeals to me. That said, Ernst Lubitsch’s (The Shop Around the Corner), To Be or Not to Be (1942) isn’t exactly a comedy. It is, but it’s not hilarious like a typical screwball farce of the era. The delicate mechanisms of the complicated plot are more of a concern than gags for this WWII movie set in Poland. Actors Maria and Joseph Tura (Carol Lombard and Jack Benny) and their whole company must act as double-agents to save the lives of several families whose identities have been compromised by a Nazi double-agent. The plot thickens when Benny discovers his wife’s not-so-secret admirer (Robert Stack), but even with emotions at an unstable high, the show must go on if they want to live through the night. It’s easy to see why Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) is more celebrated today. Chaplin was a more influential artist and icon and Dictator is genuinely a lot funnier and more fiercely political. To Be or Not to Be, however, has the more interesting storyline and more relatable characters and situations—never letting the grander picture upstage the human drama between the individual characters and never devolving into episodic slapstick routines. The solutions to their problems are innovative and surprising too as the story twists and turns. I was never sure what was going to happen next. Both were made during the war, but Dictator always felt distant, like a commentary from a far-off observer—which is what it was. To Be or Not to Be actually feels closer to the action, perhaps because of its more consistently serious structure and tone. I’ve seen Dictator at least 30 times, but I’m eager to watch this wartime comedy again soon.
Here’s another I could not predict, scene to scene. Really, anything could have happened next. Everyone’s praised this one and I will too. Under the Skin (2013) really is like no film you’ve seen before. Perhaps it’s closest comparison being a hybrid of The Man Who Fell to Earth and Species, but even that doesn’t do justice to this stealthy, surreal contemplation on humanity given to us by director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast). Scarlett Johansson goes through the motions of her alien mission to eat(?) human males around Scotland, until she meets a few people who alter her perception of humans and, in turn, her understanding of herself. But it’s so much more interesting than that. This is a very enigmatic and pensive film that takes its time, but, for me, it never felt slow. There is so much to constantly ponder and soak in. This is the sort of movie that you just watch as if you are in a dream. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It, for lack of a better cliche, got under my skin. Under the Skin was my favorite film I saw recently. I highly recommend it if you’re the sort of person intrigued by truly poetically surreal science-fiction. Or nudity.
BONUS: Short Film Festival
Werner Herzog Defends Dade (2011) dir. Lindsay Scoggins (USA). Old Herzog field footage synced up with some guy rambling about Florida that turns into a rap. At less than a minute long, it does not overstay its welcome.
Inside the Mind of Colin Furze (2014) dir. David Beazely (UK) [documentary]. Colin Furze is an inventor, a tinkerer, a mechanical artist. Watch him soup up vehicles and appliances.
Xenos (2014) dir. Mahdi Fleifel (UK/Denmark/Greece) [documentary]. A few Palestinians stuck in a destitute Greek economy consider if life were any better in the Lebanese refugee camps. It’s not a subject we think about a lot.
Marilyn Myller (2013) dir. Michael Please (UK) [animation]. A stop-motion marvel (from the creator of The Eagleman Stag) about a perfectionist’s unyielding yearning to be perfect. The visuals are great.
Person to Person (2014) dir. Dustin Guy Defa (USA). A record store owner can’t seem to get a strange. attractive woman out of his home. It’s funny and let’s you soak in the atmosphere. The character seems endearingly odd perhaps because he seems more realistically written than his situation. I enjoyed it a lot.
More Than Two Hours (2013) dir. Ali Asgari (Iran). A man races to find a hosptial that will treat his bleeding girlfriend…but the sexual nature of her injury causes the medical professionals to deny her or insist on reporting them to the authorities as their out-of-wedlock sexual activity is quite illegal. It’s frustrating and affecting. I recommend it.
Swimmer (2012) dir. Lynne Ramsey (UK). It’s surreal, hypnotic, and stunningly gorgeous in its rich black and white photography. My favorite short of the bunch.
Mostly newer movies this time. And I will begin by saying that several of these I watched on my 16 hour flight to New York and the 16 hours back to Seoul so perhaps a few deserve a re-watch. Again, in order of what I thought of them.
I’ve not read the book, but by and large the stilted performances and bland feeling trump the best intentions of Ender’s Game (2013) to shine the light on how we dehumanize our enemies and infect our young with the sickness of war. It’s not terrible, but not something I will be seeing again. Some awkward child acting and Harrison Ford looks like he’s asleep. Nothing with Sir Ben Kingsley in it is completely unwatchable though.
What do Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid, Shelley Long, and dinosaurs have to do with each other? Nothing and Caveman (1981) proves it. I like those old no-dialogue cheesy cave-people movies with scantily clad females and wonky dinosaurs, alas this spoof never gets its timing right and becomes quite dull, despite some very fun stop-motion creature designs.
Meh and/or Misguided:
Before everyone hates me, let me just say that I love a good many real silent movies and I absolutely love Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and a solid 4/5 of History of the World Part I. That being said, Mel Brooks, in my humble opinion, has a few misfires, but at least they’re daring and gutsy misfires most of the time. Mel Brooks spoofing silent comedies in Silent Movie(1976) with an A-list cast sounds like it couldn’t miss, unfortunately it does. Real silent comedies (the great ones) were never so sluggish and could usually surprise and delight without telegraphing too loudly a yawn-worthy gag during strainingly long setups.
Either Windy City Heat(2003) is the meanest and longest practical joke on the dumbest guy around or it’s the biggest waste of time imaginable. I’m still not sure if any of it was real, but it did have a few laughs at the expense of the dimwitted documentary subject who is made to believe he is being groomed for stardom (and being constantly challenged with the fragility and artifice of it all).
Marty Feldman is a smart guy and a very enjoyable performer. His skewering of American religious corruption with In God We Tru$t (1980) could have been great, instead of merely pleasantly inoffensive. Feldman is an affable innocent, a sheltered monk sent out into the real world. H meets a hooker with a heart of gold (Louise Lasser), a religious snake oil salesman (Peter Boyle), a greedy televangelist (Andy Kaufman), and God himself (Richard Pryor). The satire is obvious and plays it too safe in the end, but Feldman’s performance is charming (he also wrote and directed this one) and the first act is solid.
Disney-Pixar’s Brave (2012) might have been great had it not aimed to be so silly. The best bits of this film’s undercooked story are the dramatic elements and the believable human relationships. Too often it shoots low and goes for cutesy or crass and it doesn’t seem to mesh well in the end. The animation is gorgeous though.
Real Mixed Bags-style over substance:
I re-watched Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1992) recently. I remember disliking it when I first saw it. This time I appreciated its manic energy and wild experimentation and its zany, irreverent style a bit more. The film is a sexy visual pleasure with a big-name cast…unfortunately most of which are woefully miscast. It’s other sin might be that it’s a bit messy and unfocused. I enjoyed the imagery and the melodrama and bold atmosphere, but my appreciation may have ended there. Gary Oldman is pretty good in it though. Credit to Coppola for treating the sacred subject matter with such visual innovation.
I’m sad to list Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster(2013) so low on this list, especially after listing In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express in the top two when they appeared on these lists in the past. I liked The Grandmaster‘s impeccably powerful visual sense (Wong Kar Wai is a master) but the story felt muddled and it was difficult to focus on many of the characters. There was a point in the film when I was exhausted with all the closeups. One can only spend so much time that close to a human face. The fight scenes were beautifully choreographed by Woo-ping Wen and elegantly shot (albeit a bit too close) against the most lurid of poetically rich backdrops and I did enjoyed Ziyi Zhang’s performance and her character’s arc was the most compelling. Alas, I found myself pining for a less pretentious kung fu movie…like Ip Man.
So much debate and controversy surrounding Prometheus (2012), Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe. It’s a visual treat with some fun touches and great design, but it will be compared to the first two Alien movies. No getting around it. The big joke was that the movie raises so many more questions than it answers, but I think that was part of the point. I enjoyed it. It’s worth watching. Not fantastic, but it’s smarter and gutsier than a lot of lame and lazy science fiction flicks.
I honestly wasn’t expecting much when I watched Monsters University (2013). I wasn’t the biggest fan of Monsters Inc. It was alright, but I might have enjoyed the prequel even more. The animation pops more and is more colorful, the sight-gags are sharper, and writing feels weirdly mature. It’s a typical college movie of nerds vs. jocks and students vs. faculty—which was familiar but competent and fun—but the film’s message in the end got me: no matter how hard you work for it sometimes you don’t get the thing you want the most. Sully has to learn not to be slacker and work for success but also how to be a friend, which is nice, but Mike’s lesson is much harsher. It hits a nerve most kiddie films never dare to hit.
Yeah, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013) is actually weirdly heart-warming and not as mean-spirited as you might expect. It’s weird that it genuinely seems to be all in good fun. Compare it with the piercing barbs of Borat. There’s a story in there too amidst the hidden camera hijinks, and it almost never mocks or belittles the real bystanders. I laughed and was surprised by the balance it set.
Frozen (2013) is a pretty animated music video with some snappy, funny writing. The story subverts the traditional Disney heroine who always needs a man to save her, which was refreshing. It’s good that a film like this tries to focus on family relationships, if only they did a better job of sculpting that dynamic. The rock trolls were unnecessary and weird. Olaf was cute.
Who knew that the serious depiction of a romantic relationship between a grown man with a mustache and a computerized voice would be so compelling and fascinating? Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, is a weird little sci-fi romance featuring a subdued image of the near future and tells us more of humans today than maybe we’d like to admit. We are turning more and more to our artificial things to comfort us and stave away loneliness, but what if these artificial interfaces were more autonomous than we were prepared for? And not in a killer robot Terminator kind of way. It’s a quiet, delicate, and thought-provoking movie.
Life of Pi without the tiger or maybe Gravity without space and less clumsy dialogue and characters. J. C. Chandor’s All is Lost(2013) finds such a majestic poetry in its simplicity. When a man (played by Robert Redford in a near wordless solo performance) wakes to discover a hole in his small yacht, he will stoically put his survival instincts to the test in the middle of the ocean. It’s haunting and mature. A refreshing departure.
Blackfish (2013) is Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary about a killer who happens to be an orca and the possible cover-up and the possibly dark underbelly of amusement parks that utilize wild animals as performers. I may not know much about whales, but I see all animals as intelligent, interesting creatures that deserve far more respect and space than we give them. This documentary reminds us that nature is unpredictable, emotional, and suffering as much if not more than us.
Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) tackles middle-class privileged aimlessness once again, this time with Greta Gerwig as his muse in Frances Ha (2012). Shot in glorious black and white, this story follows a drifting and foundering New Yorker as she tries to figure out what her life is about. It strikes very close to home for me and I like that. Gerwig gives a wonderful performance.
I finally saw Martin Scorsese’s criminally overlooked The King of Comedy (1982). Robert De Niro is an oblivious weirdo who dreams of being a comedian like his Johnny Carson-esque hero (who he stalks) played by Jerry Lewis. Like After Hours it’s a very dark comedy and like Kundun it seems no one has seen it. The fan’s obsession drives him to ignore crucial details and ultimately causes his destiny to unfold in perhaps an insane or perhaps an insanely calculated way.
Nearing the Summit:
God On Trial (2008) is a British TV drama that takes place in a concentration camp during World War II. In it, the Jewish prisoners awaiting their fates decide to debate whether God is good or not. It is actually a very gripping tale as you see these men wrestle with their faith in one of the most dehumanizing places. It becomes their therapy and it will bring many to seriously question everything they ever knew.
I like the Coen Brothers and I was pleased with Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Beautifully photographed, very well acted, strangely structured, and darkly, delicately humorous. Like Monsters University, this movie deals with what you cannot obtain. It’s a tragically true story with a wonderfully realized setting. It’s bleak but perhaps a needed medicine. The songs were good and several scenes really stick with you. Anyone in the arts has gone through similar trials and can relate.
Another documentary? Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman (2010) is a close examination at some of the problems with America’s public education system. What about it doesn’t work and why? What reforms have been tried? What trends do we see repeating? Who are the faces of the children who are drowning in the broken corners of the system? It’s an important film that ought to be considered by all.
It’s almost fitting I put I’m All Right Jack (1959) right after Waiting for Superman. Both deal with unions and corruption. This British comedy starring Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, and Peter Sellers, is an impeccably acerbic satire that skewers all rungs of the social ladder. The sins, hypocrisies, and foibles of all: the upper class, the industry moguls, the labor unions. All are put on display for our amusement.
What a sumptuously atmospheric tale of horror this one is. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) stars Deborah Kerr as a governess (she’s gonna get type-cast if she’s not careful) to two freaky kids in a mysterious mansion in the British country. Something horrible happened before she got the job and something evil still lurks within the house. Spooky hijinks ensue.
Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), combines a stellar cast headed by the great Ralph Fiennes and colorful, whimsical, stagey aesthetics to a caper comedy that unfolds during the troubling onset of World War II. It’s a positive film with good feelings and then twinges of whistfulness and sobriety. It’s glamorous while poking fun at the glamor. The plot is fun and loose, and allows for some fun intrigue and chases, the setting is magical and a fascinatingly nuanced character unto itself, and the frame of a story within a story within story encapsulates the theme of where stories come from and perhaps, why we tell them. Nobody orchestrates this kind of stuff like Anderson. I quite loved it. Incidentally it would make a good double-feature with Cabaret.
Another documentary?! Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) is a bizarre, difficult, sickening, grim, and emotionally arresting film that must be watched. Proud former Indonesian death-squad executioners, torturers, and militia are allowed to stage their proudest atrocities in their favorite film genres. At what point will it click that what these men did was heinous? Will it ever click? Are men so cowardly and evil capable of empathizes with their victims? The results will surprise and disturb you. Humanity is a strange thing. I cannot recommend this movie enough. The final two scenes have lingered with me for weeks.
Once more. The last few movies I’ve seen by order what I thought of them. Had I seen a few of these earlier my Best of 2012 list would have been different. Ah well.
Saw Expendables 2 (2012). It sucks. It stars Sly, Statham, Ahnold, the Dolf, the black guy from those awesome Old Spice commercials, JCVD, Mr. Willis, Lone Wolf McQuade, Jet, also some woman. While it is one of the worst film’s I’ve seen all year I must confess it is more watchable than any of the Transformers movies.
Meh and/or Misguided
Bias alert. I’m not a big fan of Ben Stiller or the Farrelly Brothers. They’re not all bad, but most of the time they’re just not my thing. There’s Something About Mary (1998) was considered a crowning achievement for both of them in many ways, hailed as a modern comedy classic. One or two somewhat funny scenes aside, this was disappointing. I liked Dumb and Dumber better. Perhaps it was just built up too much and I missed it when it was new. Keith David as Mary’s stepdad in the beginning was the funniest part of the whole movie.
Roman Coppola (CQ) is sort of like a more Jared Hess-y wannabe Wes Anderson. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (2013) has a snazzy retro style, but it never deserves its smugness. The cast is good (Charlie Sheen, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Katheryn Winnick, and Patricia Arquette) but the story is just so empty. A graphic designer’s girlfriend breaks up with him and he has some surreal daydreams. This needed more than a few rewrites. There are some ideas you could tell might resemble clever ideas had they kept at it.def
Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski Brothers (V for Vendeta) helm the admirably ambitious film Cloud Atlas (2012) is a fractured fairytale of reincarnation and interconnectedness of all individuals throughout history. I’ll admit the snappy editing almost had me fooled it was a good movie until about halfway through. The simplistic message told in “the Inception effect” (obfuscation to create the illusion of depth) not only manages to rip-off The Soylent Green, Blade Runner, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and more, but additionally puts the actors through multiple segments wherein they must where embarrassingly awkward ethnic makeup. A friend said the white actors in “yellow-face” look like Christian Slater. Gripes aside, it does manage to be entertaining if rather weightless—despite its pretentions to the contrary.
Some fun at last:
Help! (1965) is another anarchic Richard Lester (The Bed-Sitting Room) film starring The Beatles. I was really expecting more. While it does have some clever lines and a few zany sight gags I couldn’t help but compare it to A Hard Day’s Night which was wittier and sharper and Yellow Submarine which was way more surreal and joyous. The biggest problems are the silly plot isn’t quite silly enough, the Beatles themselves seem bored, and there aren’t nearly enough Beatles songs. Watchable, but I just know two other Beatles movies that are great. It also features Leo McKern as an insane Egyptian priest.
The Frisco Kid (1979) is a comedy western about a Polish rabbi trying to cross the United States. It stars Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford and is directed by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen). This is an incredibly mixed bag that I kind of wish would be remade with a more consistent tone and a more competent eye for comedy. So much of it just doesn’t work, but the fun premise and Gene Wilder’s performance redeemed it for me.
I was hoping for something like In Bruges. While John Michael McDonagh’s film, The Guard (2011), isn’t near as clever, it is pretty darn entertaining. Brendan Gleeson is a casually racist but sinfully lovable Irish cop who winds up helping Don Cheadle, an anal FBI agent looking for drug dealers. It’s not a heavy movie. It’s just a fun, fast talking police buddy movie with some satisfying violence. It doesn’t want to be In the Heat of the Night. The dialogue crackles with smugness and wit. Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham costar as some very enjoyable baddies. If you like your comedy dry and Irish, check this movie out.
Things become interesting:
In Raoul Ruiz’s Hypothesis of the Stolen Paintings (1979) two narrators work to uncover a mystery. This dreamlike film employs ethereal tableaux-vivants (reminiscent of The Mill and the Cross) to look deeper into the art world as the narrators restage all of the paintings with real people to search for clues and possible connections in the series of paintings. Bizarre, slow, and interesting.
Harry Kümel’s (Daughters of Darkness) strange horror film Malpertuis: The Legend of Doom House (1971) needs patience more than it needs explanation. Virtually every synopsis, no matter how brief, ruined the twist at the end. It is slow and very weird, but the cinematography and the imagery are never boring. Just know it’s a haunted house movie and let the questions keep building until the final act. Orson Welles and Jean-Pierre Cassel have supporting roles.
So I found the makeup in Cloud Atlas comical and possibly racist. How in the blazes do I let The Mask of Doctor Fu Manchu (1932) off the hook? Well, I guess I don’t exactly. The campy horror film with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in absurd Asian makeup is exactly as ridiculous as it wants to be. It’s a silly movie with admitted xenophobic undertones, but I like it as a cultural oddity. During that time it was not uncommon for big name actors to where ethnic makeup and rely on insensitive stereotypes. Does that make it right? No. But we can observe these films with a different lens today. But really it’s the torture devices and pulpy situations that make this a great watch.
Albert Brooks presents one of the more creative depictions of the Afterlife in Defending Your Life (1991). When a simple man (Brooks) dies and discovers you must go on trial to prove you possess courage in order to pass to the next level of existence. If the court finds you afraid then you are sent back to earth in another body. Rip Torn is his attorney, who pours through the files to prove his client’s bravery, but it isn’t until he meets Meryl Streep, another recently deceased person, that he realizes there are things worth fighting for. Cute jabs at bureaucracy, Los Angeles, and reincarnation abound in this easy going comedy.
Speaking of Karloff, Gods and Monsters (1998) is a quiet biopic about the last days of Frankenstein director, James Whale. The story deals with Whale’s illness, his memories of the Great War, his stubbornness as an artist, his homosexuality, and his possible relationship with a gardener played by Brendan Fraser. While Fraser might be an odd choice, he’s not bad and it is Sir Ian McKellan’s Oscar-nominated performance as James Whale that makes this simple movie what it is. It’s a sad but witty affair.
So Disney has been having trouble competing with its own Pixar movies. Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph (2012) might just be on par with some of the competition. It’s pretty to look at, boasts some clever visuals, lots of humor, and some heart with a simple message. It’s a spectacle, but an adorable and action-filled one. Alan Tudyk and Jack McBrayer’s voices were the humorous highlights for me. Paranorman was the best animated feature this year, however.
Would you believe Liam Neesan does more than punch wolves in The Grey (2011)? Joe Carnahan’s movie was woefully mismarketed. It’s a far more subtle, tragic, and existential story than the misleading trailers would have you to believe. It’s kind of like a much better version of The Edge.
With Barbet Schroeder’s (Barfly) documentary Koko, a Talking Gorilla (1978) the title says it all. The film explores the rift between humans and animals. Koko, the famous gorilla who was taught sign language, allows to get closer to animals than perhaps thought possible. Communication is a tough barrier, but Koko’s handlers work tirelessly to overcome this barrier. The film ends posing a series legal dilemmas regarding Koko’s total lack of rights despite her apparent intelligence.
Paul Schrader (probably most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) made a bold move with Mishima – A Life in Four Chapters (1985). It’s a beautifully surreal and intentionally episodic biopic about an obscure (to the west) writer and the whole film is in Japanese. It’s beautiful and strange and deals with the enigmatic Yukio Mishima’s sexuality, his obsessions, his written work, and the final bizarre moments of his life.
Peter Lorre made a huge impact as the child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, but his first big American movie, Mad Love (1935), might be even more deranged because it is more stylized and ludicrous. Karl Freund’s (The Mummy) movie is a sick Grand Guignol tale of the macabre. Lorre is a perverted mad scientist who transplants a knife throwing murderer’s hands onto the wrists of a famous pianist (Colin Clive) in order to get his fiance (Frances Drake). It’s a different point of view on the silent classic The Hands of Orlac.
Advise and Consent (1962) is a fantastic political drama with a rocking allstar cast and an eerily still significant storyline that resonates today. Directed by Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder) was controversial in its day, and while it might seem tamer today it is no less chilling and frustrating. The killer cast features Henry Fonda, Walter Pigeon, Paul Ford, Burgess Meredith, Peter Lawford, Don Murray, Lew Ayres, and (in his last role) Charles Laughton. This movie is the anti-Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In a good way.
Always left me smiling and satisfied:
I mentioned earlier my mild disappointment that The Guard was not as great as In Bruges. Well, In Bruges director, Martin McDonagh, brings an intelligent Irish wit to Seven Psychopaths (2012). It’s equal parts violent killer movie, road movie and buddy comedy, and meta analysis of the mechanisms of writing for a genre and cliches. The cast is brilliant (Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, and others) and like In Bruges and Six Shooter it deftly balances loss and levity. One of my favorite movies of 2012.
Andy Griffith (The Andy Griffith Show) plays way against type in A Face in the Crowd (1957), an expert political satire directed by the great Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, East of Eden). Griffith is a folksy free spirit who speaks his mind and becomes a surprise media sensation. As he cackles and jokes over the airwaves his influence grows out of control and it turns out he’s actually a bit of a sociopath. This is an amazing movie.
There’s a special talent in making a film that is equally funny and tragic. Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George (1994) is a tremendous movie with loads of wonderful performances and extravagant costumes. What do you do when the king takes leave of his senses? How do you get him back? How will the government stay intact? Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren head the amazing cast. If you had a whole day to murder I’d suggest a triple feature of this, Amadeus, and Barry Lyndon.
My absolute favorite film of late is an obscure British wartime propaganda piece called Went the Day Well? (1942). A quaint English town in the country is being craftily infiltrated by Nazis posing as British soldiers. Additionally, the townsfolk have already tried to help them before they realize what’s afoot. When the truth is revealed, the violence begins and the villagers must band together and take back their town from the Nazis and save England. It’s like an awesome version of Red Dawn. The characters are smart and likable. The pacing is solid and action is satisfying. The threats are real and menacing. Think about this: in 1942 this was not only a real fear but a real possibility. This is a grade A vintage thriller. The movie was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (who also directed the ventriloquist dummy sequence from the equally great Dead of Night) and features Leslie Banks (The Most Dangerous Game). I love this movie.
What did you see last? Anything good?
I hope you all like wordless non-narratives.
Sometimes you just have to take a few great, big steps back and look at things from a different angle. Film can show us new angles we might have otherwise missed. Good cinema conveys compelling emotions. It expounds on provocative ideas about the world we live in or what the world used to be like or what it can become. It may be persuasive. It may be informative. It may have stunning visuals. It may be beautiful and captivating. It may be arresting and ugly. Good cinema may have some of these things mixed together unevenly, but great cinema does it all. Great cinema is exploratory and revelatory and revolutionary. It has all these things, but it does not require the cumbersomeness of words. Director Godfrey Reggio proves this point with his amazing trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Through this series Reggio explores and explains our world as a glorious and terrifying ballet of images and motion set to a powerful Philip Glass score.
I know what you’re thinking: “those are the most alienating titles I have ever seen.” Well, they each come from the Hopi Indian language and each film deals with a different direction society has taken. Let us proceed in order, shall we?
The first film is entitled Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and translated it means “life out of balance.” It opens with cave paintings and rocket exhaust and then beautiful and powerfully awesome pictures of nature. Dazzling rock formations jut out of the earth and mountains and canyons sculpted by the forces of nature whiz by like an incredible, living mosaic. The music pumps wonder and energy into every frame. Even when the camera lingers on subjects and is still it is nothing short of jaw dropping. Gradually the lush terrain becomes entangled in modern man-made constructs. Billowing smoke stacks protrude out from labyrinthine nightmares of wires and pipes. Towering buildings blot out the sun and mimic the sky as they reflect the shifting clouds. People bustle through streets and subways and supermarkets. Assembly line systems from hell (or maybe Detroit) rage on interminably. Urban renewal wipes out slums and old buildings with merciless precision. Machines whir and hammer away incessantly. Metal sparks blaze forth from the pulsating industry. Modernization spins its web ever faster until moving at an exponential rate. As the music becomes more intense and the editing becomes deliriously fast, the images begin to blur together and transform from a wondrous ballet to an unbearable barrage of nightmarish images reflecting all that is wrong with mechanization. Just when the chaos reaches its zenith, Reggio backs off and gives us more peaceful images (peaceful in the sense that they are slower and the music is quieter). The images themselves are still quite compelling. The last thing we see before the curtain is drawn is a spaceship, the Challenger, launching and exploding in the atmosphere in slow motion. The rocket’s engine tumbles down from the sky as Glass’s score resounds like an ominous funeral dirge. Has mankind flown too close to the sun on wings of wax? Have we spoiled the earth so much and reached too high and too selfishly to the heavens that God has stifled our Tower of Babel a second time? Before the credits roll Reggio closes his film with a parting shot of more prehistoric cave paintings.
If a picture is worth a thousand words then this movie is worth millions. It says so much without vocalizing anything. It is elusive yet definite. It is tranquil yet violent. It is the visual representation of “life out of balance.” It is a history lesson and a science lesson and a warning and a lament all at the same time. And it is beautiful and stirring. Koyaanisqatsi will leave the viewer with much to ponder and all without plot or characters.
The second film always gets flack for “not being the first film” but it is still a great movie. Again Reggio employs both silent images and motion with the music of Philip Glass. Powaqqatsi (1988) comes from the Hopi language again and it means “life in transformation” or “parasitic way of life.” The second installment in the trilogy deals chiefly with the third world of the Southern Hemisphere and those first sooty steps toward the door of industrialization. The images are more about the struggle for life and survival as a forlorn parade of wide-eyed, sallow-faced visages pass from the screen to our eyes. Gaunt bodies and bent backs do work most Americans would never dream of doing. People struggle to work and prepare meals and to entertain themselves. This is the feather-filled pageantry of the tribal world clashing and struggling to become the industrialized doomed nations Koyaanisqatsi depicted. The results are more toxic smoke and fumes. The transition from third world country to mechanized city can be uneven and difficult and the film is no less compelling. Powaqqatsi is the cinematic equivalent of a coke-frenzied flip through several “National Geographic” magazines. If you are going to watch this movie, be prepared to be moved and compelled by the human face. The film is another staggering achievement.
Godfrey Reggio conveys so much without any words. What the filmmakers have done with these two movies is attempt present the world we live in. The meaning and message behind Powaqqatsi may be more elusive than its predecessor, Koyaanisqatsi, but it is no less captivating.
The final installment in the Qatsi Trilogy is Naqoyqatsi (2002) which means “life as war” in the Hopi language. Its message is not so subtle. It leaves subtlety at the doorstep as it opens on the very Tower of Babel and gradually zooms in. It is no longer a process; man has gone too far in Naqoyqatsi. Reggio once again teams up with Philip Glass to bring entrancing symphony to startling imagery. Naqoyqatsi features digitally enhanced footage and inverted colors to create a surreal fascistic nightmare about life as being completely mechanized and totally artificial. Nothing is natural or organic. The world has become an all out war on nature and nature is nowhere to be found. It has been eclipsed by the cold, artificiality of mechanization. The sky is gone. Trees and shrubberies have retreated back into the earth. Technology has dominated society and the planet, leaving only ghostlike figures pointlessly wandering the crowded streets. Soldiers march, satellites rotate, and numbers dance through a void. The whole ordeal is a chaotic orgy of logos, binary, and blurred lights. Hollow technology reigns supreme and humanity has been reduced to spectral cogs in a violently impersonal machine. The tampered with footage and digital imagery is not quite as compelling as the first two films, and the message more closely resembles a sledgehammer than the spellbinding display that provoked so much thought with the first two movies, but it is still well worth the time to watch it. It’s more impersonal, but maybe that’s part of the point Reggio is trying to make…no wait, of course it is.
Like Ron Fricke’s (Reggio cohort and cinematographer on the Qatsi series) Baraka (1992) and Dziga Vertov’s amazing The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Godfrey Reggio manages to interpret the world in a direct and transcendental way. They move beyond conventional storytelling and conventional documentary making to become something truly unique and mystical. Life is a vigorous battle of both immense beauty and horror. The scope and wonder captured in the Qatsi Trilogy is nothing short of staggering and the delirium with which it is all captured will leave you breathless. I cannot recommend enough that you treat yourself to Reggio’s film work, the Qatsi Trilogy.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 20, 1010