The best film I’ve ever seen

April 9, 2015

Hello folks, it’s been a long time since I published anything so I want to post something pretty short that I’m nevertheless proud of. As a big movie buff, from time to time I’m asked what my favourite film of all-time is, and in response I wrote a short essay about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.  The most important reason that it’s my favourite film is that it had the biggest impact of any film I’ve seen on who I am as a person and film buff, but explaining that impact in the depth it deserves is a long and complex process. Thus, I challenged myself to write about Magnolia in 100 words or less, and this is the result.

Magnolia: One Hundred words on its importance to me, and why others should watch it

“Magnolia” taught me that there is no greater pain than having unresolved issues with family, and that confronting kin after they’ve hurt you is a very difficult, but transformative and necessary, process. That such a touching, wise and extremely compassionate movie rivets the attention for three hours is a testament to how wildly entertaining it is. The acting is top-notch (Tom Cruise has never been better) and there are both a musical interlude and an unforgettably Biblical ending; quite simply, “Magnolia” is the very best film I have ever seen.

2014 Toronto International Film Festival Capsule Review: A Girl at my Door

September 24, 2014

A work colleague of mine, David Davidson, kindly offered to publish my latest review, of July Jang’s A Girl at my Door, on his blog, Toronto Film Review. Here’s the link to my review in particular; I hope you like it.

Steve McQueen’s Shame and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon: The Sex Addict’s Life

November 15, 2013

Although each of these films work more than well enough on their own, it came to mind recently that they make a fascinating pair, because their differences are perfectly complementary, like mirror images or the contents of a two-piece puzzle, and the picture they complete when put together is that of a shared wisdom that would help not just many sex addicts but men in general too. Shame is the more European of the two, with its spectacular long takes and tracking shots, lack of dialogue, and ruminative nature fulfilling a pessimistic, highly individual portrait of a man whose outwardly successful life is falling apart due to his addiction, while Don Jon takes a Jersey Shore-esque stereotype, that of the brash, Italian-American playboy, places him in an equally cheekily-made film full of porn clips and jump cuts, and allows him to find a way out of the wilderness of his proclivities. Thus, though the films showcase the day-to-day nature and impact of their protagonists’ addiction to sex in very different ways, they both expose the wider social implications of this obsession, even if it is non-addictive: that many modern men have lost the ability to differentiate between forms of sex that concentrate mostly on their pleasure versus the far more transcendental, and unselfish, intimacy of two people becoming one, and that easy access to sex, both on the streets of New York in Shame and the internet in Don Jon, has played a pivotal role in these developments.

Shame begins with its lead character Brandon (Michael Fassbender) riding the subway, and while doing so he spots a pretty woman sitting across from him. A series of smiles and looks between them establish a shared attraction, but as the ride continues the viewer perceives a subtle change in her body language, for her short flirtation has been returned by his continued, intense staring. She gets up to get off the train, and chooses to hang onto the pole closest to him so she can flash him her wedding ring. Undeterred after seeing it, he takes up a position right behind her at the same pole and follows her out the door, but she has quickened her pace and loses him very shortly after. Frustrated, though not very visibly so, he gets back on the subway and goes about his business. The coolness of his predatory chase is matched perfectly by the coolness of the filmmaking, as the entire sequence is wordless and the score effective but subtle, and a lot of the emotion comes out of the startlingly intimate medium two-shots of the two parties to a would-be hook-up. By contrast, Don Jon begins with a loud montage of jump cuts of porn clips and TV ads, but since there is no narration at first it is subtle in suggesting that American culture is so over-sexualized that even fast-food commercials are far more about showcasing scantily-clad models than selling food. This is followed by protagonist Jon Martello Jr.’s narration explicating why he thinks porn is better than real sex, though he continues to have plenty of the latter with conventionally attractive women. While Brandon’s chasing of a good-looking subway rider is handled very intimately, the ads shown in Don Jon point to a society-wide issue, that of the pervasive nature of sex in all aspects of Americana. Notwithstanding other differences in shot lengths and use of dialogue, these opening moments do show plenty of similarities in their establishing of Brandon and Jon as likable people with outwardly successful lives who have been able, for the most part, to keep their addictions private. Moreover, both films immediately show how easy access to sex helps Brandon and Jon keep this privacy, as Brandon has what he feels is an opening to casual sex with a stranger (even a married one) and does not have to feel any public shame for it in a world in which there are websites that facilitate cheating, while Jon has the easy Internet access to porn in the comfort of his own room, and later on his cell phone, away from prying eyes.

Two women do eventually catch Jon watching porn, prompting him to rethink his desire to do so, and Brandon’s carefully constructed lie of a life begins to unravel because of the attentions of two women also. Firstly, Jon meets the “perfect ten” woman of his dreams, Barbara, who is played by Scarlett Johansson, and she turns out to be as swayed by visions of other people’s romantic lives as Jon is by others’ sex lives; she is an addict of Hollywood romantic comedies, and has internalized them to the point that she has very one-sided attitudes on how her man should lead his life. Similarly, Brandon’s skewed sexual perspective is matched by his sister Sissy’s (Carey Mulligan), who breaks into his bachelor pad and starts living on his couch, much to his chagrin. There are hints of a crossing of sexual boundaries done to or by these siblings in childhood, but director McQueen wisely does not dig too deep into that, because his film is not about sexual abuse, incest, or even sex addiction, it’s about intimacy and the lack thereof in many contemporary relationships. Though Jon and Barbara have frequent sex and share a mutual attraction, they are unable to truly please the other because their views on romance and sex are too individually-minded, while Brandon and Sissy’s views on sexuality have been tragically perverted to such a point that they cannot have lasting relationships with anyone, even their own sibling.

A coworker of Brandon’s, Marianne, asks him out, and while he holds his own in the highly codified world of dating, once both of them attempt to get physical he shuts down, for the only sex he can tolerate is with strangers and requires no long-term commitment. It is clear that for Brandon there is no way out, because he is too ashamed of himself to consider he an equal to any woman who would have him as a long-term partner, and here is where the films differ the most, for Don Jon is primarily a comedy and thus reliant on a happy ending. Jon meets Julianne Moore’s Esther, who teaches him that his form of sex is too self-serving to result in the kind of intimacy that sustains long relationships, and that losing oneself in another person is, while a more difficult task, infinitely more pleasurable for both people. What it requires is an open mind and an ability to communicate not just what you want from your lover but to listen to what he/she wants. I’ve read somewhere that sex is like a pail that’s full of water, and it is up to the parties involved to carry the pail over to the far side, which represents true intimacy, while spilling the least amount of water possible, and with both parties coming out pleased with the endeavor. The protagonists in Shame and Don Jon would do well to learn how to do that.

Capsule Review #2: Cafe de Flore (2011)

March 25, 2013

Café de Flore (2011)

                Jean-Marc Vallee’s Café de Flore is a powerfully moving, multisensory mosaic of a film telling two stories,  one set in late-1960s Paris and the other in modern-day Montreal, that explore the ways we lose, or find, love. The former narrative follows a single mother and her son, who is afflicted with Down syndrome and is seven years old, which dooms him to being misunderstood when he declares he is in love with a classmate, a feeling that the classmate returns. A pointed contrast develops between the boy’s mother, who feels he is slipping away from her, and the girl’s parents, who encourage the children’s affection and invite the boy to sleep over.

The Montreal storyline introduces us to a successful deejay that has separated from his ex, the mother of his two children, and is living with a new love, a woman younger and seemingly less troubled than his former lover. Vallee fights the urge to moralize, giving the three protagonists of this account the depth and empathy they each deserve, and the maturity to recognize that most relationships fail these days, and yet it is up to the adults to deal with complex emotions with the grace that will reassure their loved ones. The two narratives converge, in a manner of speaking, as the mostly gently-handled echoes of past lives reverberate, and music, especially the ways it helps us define and even control our emotions, proves pivotal. An unconventional work, and not to be missed.

Capsule Review: “Night Watch” (2004)

March 25, 2013

I just applied for the awesome job position of Pre-Screener for the Toronto International Film Festival, and the application I sent in required the inclusion of two film reviews, maximum 250 words each. It’s been a long time since I wrote any reviews of such short length, and as a further challenge to myself I wrote them immediately after seeing each film for the very first time. Thus, I’d like to share these reviews with you, and here’s the first one. As always, I hope you enjoy the writing, and welcome any of your comments.

 

Night Watch (2004)

 

            Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch, while never less than continuously entertaining, contains several noteworthy flaws that keep it from becoming the truly great film it occasionally teases the viewer with being. The film’s plot concerns a never-ending battle between good, day-walking vampires, and dark bloodsuckers over control of Moscow, with humans caught in the middle ground enforced by a precarious truce between the two sides, who form “Day Watch” and “Night Watch” teams to monitor the other side’s activities.

 

Night Watch unspools at a breathless pace, and some of the special effects are quite good, especially the spectacular truck flipping scene; however, some of the myriad plot threads,  such as the large storm, which are introduced and then haphazardly dropped almost as quickly, seem to be in the film merely to show off the special effects. The story turns on the relationship between Anton, the protagonist, and Egor, who has special powers, but the reckless disregard of Anton, which drives Egor to switch sides, is not handled with the complexity that would turn such recklessness into real neglect, and this robs both characters of motivation. Thus, while a good film, Night Watch’s over-caffeinated editing, too-liberal use of CGI, and the simplified motivations of its characters destine it to cult favorite rather than true original status.

My Ten Favourite Comic-Book Fiction Films (either based on comic books or placed in a comic-book context)

May 9, 2012

This list is in order, and is written about four hours before I’m due to watch The Avengers for the first time. I admit that I come at this list as mostly a beginner as a reader of comic books (I’ve only read about twenty comic books or graphic novels), so mostly these films are being judged on their own merit rather than on the merit of their successful adaptations of what they were based on. As always, your comments are not only appreciated but encouraged.

1.) The Dark Knight.- This choice will be obvious to prior readers of my blog, as it’s quite easily one of my twenty favourite films ever. It’s so because it places its comic-book heroes-and-villains characters in a very realistic/contemporary universe, and does so with the panache of a great big-city crime action film like Michael Mann’s Heat or Scorsese’s The Departed.

2.) Persepolis.- Because it’s every bit as emotionally and intellectually probing as the previous entry on the list, in a completely different yet just as stylistically groundbreaking way.

3.) Ghost World.- As with Persepolis, it’s not on a good vs. evil plane, but rather the real world of non-superheroes, and it’s a very affecting, well-acted tale of teenage outcasts.

4.) Unbreakable.- Absolutely fascinating attempt to create a real-world story with subtle comic-book stakes, without any comic-book material to adapt it from. Its writer-director, M Night Shyamalan, has become infamous in recent years for making several notoriously bad duds, which has led his good films to be under-discussed lately, which is a shame.

5.) The Mask.- Did not know this was based on a comic book? Me neither, at least until I watched it recently and noticed a little blurb to that effect written in the credits. One of the few great comic-book hero movies that show that it’s possible to have fun being such a hero, it showcases Jim Carrey at his elastic-face-wearing, up to many shenanigans best.

6.) The Incredibles.- Because comic books are a natural fit when portrayed in big and small-screen animation, and this is the best animated feature-length rendition of a comic-book universe. One of Pixar’s finest films.

7.) Hellboy II: The Golden Army.- Other than Persepolis and Ghost World, by far the most touching film on this list; Writer-director Guillermo del Toro portrays these guys as real people, superheroes that embrace that status without much complaint even though the world around them sees them as circus freaks; Moreover, this film showcases the surprisingly wholesome and affectionate family values they share towards one another.

8.) V for Vendetta.- I thought of putting Watchmen over this, and though they’re both very successful at situating heroes and villains in a somewhat realistic and contemporary world, this film gets my vote over the other because it’s a little more playful, a little more fun.

9.) Hulk.- I’m quite aware that this is a very unpopular film for many aficionados of the comic books, and many film fans in general anyway, and I do agree that when the Hulk appears the cgi renders him a mostly indistinguishable green blob, but when this film works, as it does throughout the vast majority of its running time, it works in two distinct forms, whereas most of the other superhero films on this list choose one form or the other: in several of the Hulk scenes, especially when he is chased into the desert by some Black Hawk helicopters and is able to dodge or simply swat away their missiles on the way to destroying all of the helicopters, the Hulk, while clearly very angry and not exactly in control, palpably shows me how much fun it would be to have such superpowers; Also, in the scenes depicting Bruce Banner, the film shows, in what was at the time of its release startling detail and emotional accuracy, what negative effects those superpowers and the lack of control that comes with them have on his relationships with others such as his girlfriend and father. Take this layered look at the inherent dangers as well as pleasures of having superpowers and add the way the film is shot, in little panels sharing the screen depicting different scenes, thus resembling reading an actual comic book, one has a very underrated film that pulls off a difficult balance between superhero and art movie.

10.) Iron Man.- Even more so than the cgi scenes in the previous film, Iron Man’s main achievement is in making the audience feel how much fun it would be to fly and have other superpowers that come from a bionic heart that you created yourself, because even before you made yourself a superhero you were a good-looking, rich playboy. Iron Man might be the biggest fantasy on this list because it shows saving the world is not only fun but is made to seem relatively easy by Robert Downey Jr.

Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.- Basically a feature-length episode of the excellent Batman: The Animated Series of 1992-1995, with Mark Hamill providing the voice for his initial, and very memorable, portrayal of The Joker.

Watchmen.- This one was very close to being on the actual list, but isn’t because it’s quite dark and hard to watch, and with Dark Knight, Persepolis, Unbreakable, and V for Vendetta, I have enough ultraserious films on it.

A History of Violence.- Even more so than Ghost World, doesn’t have a whiff of comic book about it, but it’s an amazing film nonetheless; I just haven’t seen it enough, or recently, to put it higher.

Spider-Man 2.- Along with “Hulk” and, to a less self-obsessed extent, Reed Richards of Fantastic Four, this film came out at a time that comic-book heroes on the big screen were sensitive males having trouble communicating with women due to being very ambivalent about themselves as men and as superheroes. This film does a very good job of bringing such emotions to the forefront while still having great special effects, exciting action scenes, and an accomplished character actor slumming as an over-the-top, megalomaniacal villain; I just think Hulk is better at using the same template, mostly because it’s less ponderous and more fun.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.- This film has a headlong energy that is matched, of the films on the list, only by The Mask, and a very lovingly nerdy sensibility that marked it from its inception as a movie you were either going to like or not like a lot.

Special Prize bestowed by me: Waking Life.- This film is not based on a comic book or placed in a comic book context, but it looks and sounds like a very special kind of comic book: free-flowing, philosophical, playful, thought-provoking, without a specific genre. I know that if more films were like this they would seize by definition to be special, but what a glorious cinematic world we would be living in if more cultural creators took as many risks as this film does. If you haven’t done so already, please check out this very hidden gem.

Neil Young at Massey Hall, May 11, 2011

May 16, 2011

First, the setlist: 1. My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
2. Tell Me Why
3. Helpless
4. You Never Call
5. Peaceful Valley Boulevard
6. Love and War
7. Down by the river
8. Hitchhiker
9. Ohio
10. Sign of Love
11. Leia
12. After the Gold Rush
13. I Believe in You
14. Rumblin’
15. Cortez the Killer
16. Cinnamon Girl
Encore Break, then
17. Walk with Me

In many ways, this was a great show, yet in some a disappointing one, and I’m writing about it because it was kind of an archetypal show in both ways, as well as the fact that it was a Neil Young at Massey Hall show, which required me to spend about five times what I usually spend for a concert ticket.

There was no band, which I didn’t expect, which robbed some of the electric guitar numbers, especially “Down by the river,” of their tension and instead rendered them lumbering repetitions of reach-for-the-rafters volume during the choruses quickly followed by tasteful strumming during the verses. Thus, the nine-minute masterpiece on record became a five-minute good song with no Crazy Horse interplay to elevate it to awesome. However, of the electric numbers, “Ohio” and “Cinnamon Girl” really stood out and have stayed in my mind since because of the inescapable greatness of the riffs at their respective cores and the pointed contrast of such riffs to the sublime beauty of Young’s non-electric work, either on acoustic guitar or piano.

Thus, the highlights of the show were mostly the non-rocking songs, as Neil’s voice remains as honeyed as ever and his age has turned him into, thankfully, not quite a sentimentalist, but nevertheless a more human singer. Thus, his playing “I Believe in You” on the piano near the end of the show was a gorgeous moment, and the as-yet-unrecorded “Leia” a very sweet ballad from a proud grandpa. I’ve always loved Neil’s rocker side a lot more than his acoustic/ piano side, mostly because at heart my music tastes start and end with electric guitar solos, and also because as beautiful as most of the songs on After the Gold Rush and Harvest are, they will never be as beautiful as the vulnerable songs on Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach, the two albums which I believe are the most successful at bridging the two main Neil personalities. At Massey, “After the Gold Rush,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Helpless” attained a potency that the recorded versions have never had because they reminded one of the passing of time and the kind of vulnerability that Neil showed after the deaths of Danny Whitten, Crazy Horse’s lead guitarist, in 1972, and roadie Bruce Berry the next year, each of heroin overdoses.

The next night I saw Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings at the Sound Academy, and that turned out to be one of the top ten concerts I have ever seen. This reminded me of the difficult task that Neil Young had to perform for me to think of his show as one of the best I’d ever seen. I came into the show with thankfully few opinions about what I wanted him to play; merely “Down by the River” and I was waiting to be surprised by a tender b-side such as “Mellow my mind” or “For the turnstiles,” the latter which couldn’t have happened anyway because there wasn’t anyone to play accompanying dobro to his banjo. However, because it’s Neil Young and I own five of his studio albums and one of his live ones and have listened to at least three more, regardless of what songs he played and at what length, I wanted him to play them a certain way. Hence, an artist of Neil Young’s stature and longevity has to, for me, play the songs in an instantly-remembered way and yet still has to give them a freshness that makes them “live,” both in the concert-music and verb versions of the word, which is hard for such artists to do because many of the songs they play are so old that they can’t be freshened even with different arrangements or so adored that new arrangements overwhelm the qualities the listener originally adored the songs for. The latter problem I had run into before on the second time I saw Bob Dylan live, during which the fact that he was touring for his 2006 Modern Times record led him to perform his old songs in this repetitively slow blues groove so they could sound like the songs on his then-new record, which made every song sound the same and none memorable.

While I have seen incredible shows by legends in the past, namely Bob Dylan the first time I saw him in the summer of 2002 as well as Eric Clapton in the summer of 2008, both at the Molson Amphitheatre, I think both of those shows were great partly because I sat on the lawn both times and thus spent below $60 on the tix, while seeing Dylan at the ACC, U2 at the same venue, and Young at Massey brought the prices and thus the expectations up (not that they wouldn’t be high at the Amphitheatre shows) to a level that the shows themselves probably could never reach. And that gets me, after travelling on the long road (hope you didn’t mind it too much), to asking the questions I wanted to ask you readers, which were the main reason for writing this entry: How do you feel about spending over $60 for a single ticket to a concert? How often have you done it, and, most importantly, how have you felt after seeing the show(s)? Disappointed? Surprised? Mind-blown? Please comment.

Dream until the dream comes true: The Truman Show and Inception

April 1, 2011

One of the reasons I am such a big fan of watching films I love many times is that it is so pleasurable to think of the ways a film affects one differently over time, not just because you’re never the same person watching it due to changes in your personality but also because your cinematic tastes change the more films you open yourself up to. Thus, it was a lot of fun to recently reconnect with Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, not only because it’s a great film in its own right but also due to the fact that it shares themes and/or ideas with the movie of the moment, and another personal favorite, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, both of which are so blazingly intelligent and exciting and original that you do have to see them several times before you find their associations with things that might have influenced them in more than skin-deep ways.

The Truman Show depicts a world that to Truman Burbank, its protagonist, is supposed to seem like a great dream: he is married to a lovely wife, he has a caring best friend, a well-paying job that he seems to enjoy and that affords him plenty of free time, and, finally, he lives in a city recently voted as the best place to live in in the world. Yet Truman begins to realize that this utopia is a dream, and by definition cannot last, and he starts, somewhat paranoically but nevertheless still gently, to look for clues as to why and how his world does not seem real. The grace that Truman shows in attempting to escape from his “dream” state is the film’s biggest difference from the action heroics of Inception and even The Matrix, the latter of which I will not discuss here because I’ve already written about its dystopic attributes at length in the past (To read my essay comparing Blade Runner and The Matrix, click here). This grace is the film’s biggest similarity to another contemporary film that I will not discuss at length in this space but is well worth checking out, Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, whose protagonists’ discoveries of their tragic fates (I will not spoil the film’s major twist, which occurs early in the film but is so powerful that it needs to be witnessed at the same time as the film, and not before) leads not to their trying to escape but instead leads to their trying to understand, a quality that is so empathetic that it lends the film a heartbreaking humanity that few films can match. But I digress.

What Inception does share with The Truman Show is the idea that dreams can, at the blink of an eye, turn from good to bad due to their very nature. Dreams and dreaming are thought of in such polarizing ways in western culture, which both of these films are clearly aware of and want to explore. In fact, the mere word “dream” can be used in polar opposite ways depending on the situation. For example, when a parent or any caring figure wants to impress upon another person that the world carries vast possibilities for anyone who remains open-minded, they tell that person to follow their dreams; and yet, when a person posits a view that is controversial or is far from becoming a reality, they are met with the swiftly scathing comment, “You’re dreaming” (Of course, one can argue that in the former case dreams are meant in the metaphorical sense while in the latter the literal sense is being used, but the problem still remains that dreams cannot help but be polarizing because they’re being discussed on one or two levels and it’s not always easy to figure out on which level they’re being discussed or whether they’re being talked about on both levels at the same time). Dreaming can be so freeing because, as Inception’s Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) puts it, it allows us to create new things and worlds and perceive how the world is being changed by these creations at the same time. Nevertheless, as Cobb describes later on in the same conversation with Ariadne (Ellen Page), dreaming can be disturbing too because it’s very hard to figure out when a dream starts, and when a dream ends is followed in a nanosecond by one’s waking up, which makes it very difficult to remember on what note the dream ended. Ergo, the dreamer’s inability to perceive their past or future while they are in a dream disallows them to place themselves on the steady footing of routine and tradition, which in turn makes dreams increasingly difficult to control.

Moreover, these films earn a lot of their tension and power by considerably complicating the audience’s ability to point to clear heroes and villains, by having key, sympathetic characters (Truman in the first film and Mal in the second) being brought into dreams they do not want to be in by those, such as Christof in The Truman Show and Cobb in Inception, who love them and pronounce that they are trying to save them. Thus, although Truman’s grace and innocence continue to show as he becomes more and more aware of the artificial nature of his life, and make him very easy to cheer for as he attempts to escape it, this viewer was nevertheless quite disarmed by Christof’s lovely final conversation with his de facto son and consequent disappointment at having lost him. Similarly, the fact that the mind thieves of Inception succeed in accomplishing their goal continues to astound me after five viewings of the film because in theory I should be thoroughly appalled by their disturbing mind control, and their means to an end are nevertheless slightly disturbing in practice, but that feeling goes away in the face of the difficulty of their task and the stakes for which they do it, not only to create healthy competition (and, hopefully, innovation) between businesses but most importantly to repair a father-son relationship.

Therefore, we have the main reason why both of these films are so powerful: they’re about dreams, dreaming, and ideas, and the maddeningly complicated ways all three of these things can be so healthy for us but can quickly turn into what Cobb deems the most resilient, highly contagious parasites, for they can envelop us in a haze that is very difficult to escape because we often don’t know it’s there.

List Time! TIFF Essential Cinema Version

October 13, 2010

As some of you may know, last year the Toronto International Film Festival released its list of the top 100 essential films of all time. They have decided to screen most of these as part of their opening celebrations for its new year-round home, the TIFF Lightbox, which is a great idea because each of these films has a built-in audience. Now, on a quick look at the list I have a lot of issues with it, most prominent of them its ignorance of genre film classics like Terminator 2 and The Exorcist, but it wasn’t until just a few days ago that I decided to craft my own list of 10 essential films, which TIFF asked the public for in order to make up its final list as an amalgamation of a public vote list and a list by cinema experts. I guess I thought it was time to put my money where my mouth is, and I also started the list because I was starting to get excited about finally seeing some of the films listed for the first time, on the big screen and sitting with an audience. Those viewings started yesterday with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which is quite sinister and very watchable despite containing one of the most disturbing performances I have ever seen onscreen, by a then-just-out-of-rehab Dennis Hopper. Tonight I’m going to see Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, and Saturday the 23rd will bring me to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, both films for the very first time.

Now, the process of the list: Since the first thing that appeals to me about a movie is almost always my personal views or the critical consensus on its director, I decided to first craft a list of my ten essential directors and then think of the one film I would recommend anybody to watch if they had never seen any of the director’s films in order to introduce them to that director’s worldview. Of course, I finally ran into a problem I thought I’d never run into, the dilemma of personal favorite vs. essential, which boils down to choosing between what films/directors are your favorites vs. what you think anybody that is interested in cinema should see. Thus, you’ll find some choices in the next two lists that I crossed off or added on, due to wrestling with that duality. Without further ado, in no particular order, my ten essential directors of all time, with honorable mentions being those who were crossed off, and rationalizations for ignoring as well as putting some directors in:

1. Stanley Kubrick
2. Orson Welles
3. Martin Scorsese
4. Steven Spielberg (this one might cause some debate, but in terms of making purely entertaining films, he’s made so many, at least 13 by my count, that he has to be on this list. Surely, he has fallen a good ways from the Jaws/Close Encounters jaw-dropping beginning of his career, but his movies are an essential introduction, as they were to me, to graduating to more paradigm-changing filmmakers like Kubrick and Scorsese later in life)
5. Akira Kurosawa (So far I’ve only seen two of his, and though I’ve only seen four of Welles’s, their titanic influence makes me want to catch up on more of their work before I die)
6. Howard Hawks John Ford Alfred Hitchcock (Sure, the other two have a huge influence and a large number of acclaimed films, but some biggies were going to be left off a very exclusive list of only ten, and I began with these two because although I like their work, it’s not top-ten essential)
7. This one will probably elicit the most response, if I get any out of my three regular readers, and that’s fine, he’s really a love-him-or-hate-him filmmaker, but he’s here because he’s the first director whose films I just had to see when they came out. He’s no more and no less the man that started my film-loving odyssey, and he’s Paul Thomas Anderson.
8. John Huston Francis Ford Coppola (With Huston, love the work he did with Bogart, and have not seen a number of his films that are also very highly regarded, but Coppola came to my mind as a last-minute addition, and I could not ignore him. While this may sound like a backhanded compliment, it’s not. I’ve always told many of my friends that I have a love/hate thing with Tarantino, and that was mostly because I loved all of his movies but hated how people overrated his first two and very much underrated Jackie Brown, which is his best, and now that I finally purchased Pulp Fiction on DVD and have made my peace with the fact that it’s not his best movie but it’s a great and highly enjoyable one anyway, I realize I now have sort of the same thing with Coppola. I don’t currently own any of Coppola’s work, so I haven’t seen it that often, but look forward to owning each of the four outstanding films he directed in the 70s, the first two Godfathers, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. I routinely forget about coppola’s work not just because it’s not in front of me anytime I want to look at it but also because his greatness according to other people is so tied into the two godfathers that the sunshiny aura those two films possess blind others from the brilliance of the latter two movies he made in the seventies as well as the brilliance of other movies about gangsters which i think are even better than coppola’s, Goodfellas and Leone’s Once upon a time in America, a blindness which angers me in so irrational a fashion that I get angry at the director for something he has no control over, the opinions of others on his work. Thus, I look forward to making my peace with his work in the very near future.
9. Sergio Leone (Some may count it against him that he was so evidently influenced by Kurosawa that he can no longer be called influential in his own right, but that ignores the mostly original, mostly distinctive greatness of his work)
10. Woody Allen (Like Spielberg, whatever his modern-day sins might be, the sheer volume of great movies he’s directed, as well as the absolute awesomeness of his best work, films like Manhattan and Hannah and her sisters, get him in here)

And now, most of these directors, except my personal fave P.T. Anderson, whose movies are just too recent, (i’ll write another list in ten years and we’ll see if he can get on) have an entry in my top ten most essential fims of all time, in no particular order (though it’s really 11 and I cheated, I could not snub any of these and believe I have earned forgiveness by snubbing P.T. despite the sheer injustice of it):

1. Casablanca (it’s too good, and too essential, to leave off)
2. Citizen Kane (as i’ve said many times, he’s done more interesting work, including the very underseen F for Fake, but as a whole on this list i tried really hard to balance personal faves with essential films that people that want to know the history of cinema have to see, and that’s why this list is a lot more canonical than some of you who know my iconoclastic ways might believe)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (thought long and hard about clockwork orange here, but if i only get one film per director that I want everybody to see, 2001’s stunning visuals as well as the fact that clockwork orange is just too disturbing to be liked by the majority of the world’s population clinch it by an eyelash)
4. Magnolia City Lights (really the only silent film non-obsessives need to watch; a lot more sophisticated and filled with realistic emotion than the label “silent cinema” would lead you to believe)
5. Goodfellas (Though Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are the ones on TIFF’s list, I don’t love Raging Bull and I love this more than Taxi Driver)
6. Manhattan
7. Seven Samurai (as of today, April 14, 2012, I’ve now seen this film twice and it’s very deserving of a spot on this list)
8. Once upon a time in the west (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the Leone western everybody else would put on this list, and it’s without a doubt scintillating cinema, but i like this one just a little bit better)
9. Jaws (Close Encounters and Schindler’s list are also clear options here. I thought a couple of minutes about what of the two main yet completely contradictory things that spielberg’s work has brought to me was more important. Was it the ability to look at the world with childlike wonder or was it the ability to see the darkness that also envelops us? Close encounters is the best film of his of the several that tried to unite these two streams, but jaws’s influentiality and sheer entertainment value as “the first blockbuster” won over it, and schindler’s list is just so depressing that i’ll never see it again, and I’m not about to put a see-one-time-only film on this list)
10. Apocalypse Now tied with Vertigo (again, each director has made other films that are very worthy of a spot on this list, but again I chose the personal favorite)

Stanley Kubrick Part II

July 26, 2010

In honor of the master’s birthday today, I would like to explain just what makes him one of my five favorite filmmakers of all time (the list, in order, is 1. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2. Wes Anderson, 3. Martin Scorsese, 4. Kubrick, 5. Woody Allen).

Kubrick’s work, more than any other director I’ve followed, gazes so deeply into the abyss of man’s negative qualities that there are moments in his films that are so shocking and inventive that they do not only awe me but sometimes cause me to break out in laughter. Now, this laughter is occasionally awkward and can be used as a coping mechanism for the discomfort I sometimes feel with what’s on screen, but when I truly laugh the loudest it is never out of schadenfreude, because I’m not laughing at the characters’ mistakes, but rather because what’s happening is truly funny, even though it’s the blackest comedy I can think of. Kubrick at his best nailed this nearly impossible-to-pull-off, and very characteristic of his work and none other’s, mix of depicting very serious, sadistic, amoral behaviour in blackly comedic form. At this point I’ll address most of his films, and the moments that depict this duality, in detail, so I can give you a more specific idea of what I’m writing about.

The first movie that gained him attention is The Killing, which I’m not going to discuss right now because so far I see it as a very minor work, though that is hardly my final statement on it, as Kubrick’s films really do get better with every single viewing and I’ve only watched it twice. The next one he did is Paths of Glory, which gets sentimental at the very end and is hardly funny at all, but is very watchable due to its depiction of the insanity of war. Two generals order Colonel Dax, the character played by Kirk Douglas, to lead an absolutely suicidal attack on a well-fortified German position in a World War I battle, an attack which is likely to lead to half of Douglas’ troops dying and very little positional advantage gained. When many of Dax’s men refuse to attack, one of these generals insists on a court-martial to try them for cowardice, and eventually they are shot after a farce of a trial that follows very little of the rule of law. The spectacle of seeing a general angling for a promotion ordering a suicide mission and then having his subordinates killed for refusing to engage in it is sickening to say the least, and Douglas’s speech at the end of the court-martial really brings that emotion to the forefront. This is a very powerful movie that augured very well for the young director’s future.

I’m regrettably going to skip a few movies that followed because I’ve either never seen them or seen them enough times to feel confident in my judgments, to his genre-defining sci-fi opus 2001: A Space Odyssey. A lot has been written about this film in the past, and will continue to be written as long as there are films and people watching them, so I will keep my views brief. To me, 2001’s greatness lies in the accuracy of its central thesis that man has been selfish and violent forever because its ancestors, apes, were selfish and violent. While this thesis comes through very clearly in the film, it’s one of the few things I can say about its themes that I’m sure about, and its essential mystery is another thing that keeps bringing me back to it. The saying that man’s reach exceeds his grasp is perfectly encapsulated in HAL, a computer that of course its creators claim is perfect and foolproof but could never be so because it was created by men, and men are never perfect. Even more importantly than what it says, however, is how 2001 says it, which is the biggest difference between Kubrick’s pre-2001 work and everything afterwards, as it deals with shocking content about how stupid men can be and how that stupidity contributes directly to the deaths of other men in an unemotional fashion rather than with the palpable outrage of Paths of Glory. I believe Kubrick makes HAL the most interesting character in his film to emphasize how coldly brutal and selfish man has been throughout his reign atop the animal kingdom. This also starts the period in Kubrick’s filmography where his musical choices are often directly at odds with the onscreen material they are enhancing, as many of these films feature gorgeous classical music while man’s basest impulses are depicted.

Then came “A Clockwork Orange,” which is in my opinion his finest achievement in its combination of very biting, very funny social satire with sequences so inventive that they linger forever in the mind, from the famed “Singin’ in the Rain” rape scene to the Alex being brainwashed one. For a deeper discussion on what makes this movie so memorable for me, read my previous post on Christopher Nolan vs. Kubrick, which is conveniently located just below this one. Next was Barry Lyndon, which I’m still not sure I’m in love with but agree with many people before me who claim it is the most visually sumptuous movie ever made. Though I may not love it as much as I adore most of the other Kubricks I’m discussing here, the scene that clinches its greatness for me is the one when Lyndon attacks his adult stepson, Lord Bullingdon, in front of a hundred members of the elite. Seconds after Bullingdon upbraids him for his brutality, Lyndon proves the younger right in such a protocol-breaking, unself-conscious, selfish and childish a manner that the scene is both shocking and hilarious, because it’s true. Thus, Kubrick again showed that men can hit rock bottom, and go even lower in their continued depravity, and his virtuosity in filming such substance with style is literally breathtaking.

This brings me to The Shining, for which Kubrick pulled off yet another near-impossible balancing act, creating an art-horror film. Now, I’m no expert on the horror genre, but it seems to me that ever since the release of The Exorcist, most of the best horror movies are epitomized by low budgets and grimy settings, etc., to create a visual ugliness that parallels the ugly nature of the violence and fear that most horror films depict. Thus it is quite startling on first viewing, and one of the film’s continued pleasures on subsequent viewings, to see that “The Shining” is as visually stunning as “Barry Lyndon,” only with much more violent, disturbing content. Kubrick also nails the frightening possibility that a landscape that is so wide open can be so claustrophobic, for it is sterile, literally cold, and isolating. Finally, the onrushing blood wide-angle shots nail this gorgeous yet horrifying aesthetic into your subconscious, where it stays forever and leaves quite an imprint.

Kubrick’s following film was Full Metal Jacket, which, stop me if I’m being repetitive here, breaks such entrenched narratival and filmmaking conventions that it shouldn’t work at all, yet stands as one of the finest war films ever made, and, after Doctor Strangelove and Clockwork, the most enjoyable Kubrick. The narrative splinters into two halves, which are only peripherally related to one another, and at the end of the first half the story completely stops its progress and restarts at a later date with merely two characters that carry over from the first half. Yet, during the first half of the narrative, which consists of basic military training for these Vietnam recruits, R. Lee Ermey, the former actual Marine playing a Marine, so thoroughly owns his role as the epitome of the ball-busting drill sergeant, and Kubrick’s unblinking camera follows him so closely, that you can’t help but feel that you are there, getting yelled at by one of the most abrasive characters in cinema. Similarly, the battle scenes in the second half of the film are so realistic that you can’t help but sympathize with these soldiers you might normally revile, who act out with murderous rage because they are afraid of the bullets whizzing by their ears, and upset that their best friend has just died in their arms. Yet none of the tragic deaths is accompanied by the over-emotive, James Horner-type scores that are de rigeur in most war films, because Kubrick never wants to engage your emotions in a conventional way.

Unconventional to the very end, Kubrick took twelve years after “Jacket” to release his next, and what turned out to be his last, film, the 159-minute Freudian fever dream called Eyes Wide Shut, which is easily his most underrated film and a great one. “Eyes Wide Shut” is the first Kubrick I ever saw, so I have a definite emotional connection to it, but the simple reason I like it so is the fact that what many people found ludicrous about it, from Cruise’s visions to his acting to the lack of believability in the pot-smoking scene and emotional sterility of the sex scenes, I found mostly absorbing. I do think Cruise’s visions of Kidman in bed with the young interloper are disposable, but the film’s other dreamlike sequences, such as the pot-smoking one, are all disturbing and befuddling in equal measure, you know, like a real dream. The scene when Cruise gets exposed as a fraud in front of everyone at the orgy is one of the best I’ve ever seen, as the minimal score gives me the chills merely when I think of it.

Thanks for reading through to the end of this (at least for me) mentally challenging, elongated yet rewarding post. Much like watching a Kubrick.