Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ranking all 88 (!) best picture winners


I promised you a wrap-up of my Audient Auscars series in the form of a ranking of all 88 best picture winners, and now I've delivered.

And Memorial Day in the U.S. seemed like a good time to do it, as I will certainly be looking back on -- remembering -- the experience of watching a lot of highly regarded movies.

Because there's a lot to say about the films in the blurbs that follow, I'll limit my up-front commentary to a couple quick bits:

1. The order of the films is based on my rankings in Flickchart, not an organic order chosen specifically by me for this purpose. I probably could have done that, but I implicitly trust Flickchart to do it for me, even if it's not "perfect." I'll try to note the films that I think are too high or too low as they come up.

2. Not wanting to spoil the surprise about my #1, nor have the poster for my #88 appearing up at the top of this post, I've decided to go with the poster in the exact middle of my rankings. Since there are an even number of films, I had another choice for the middle of the rankings, but went with this one because a) it has a picture of an Oscar statue on the poster, and b) the title seems to speak perfectly to a project involving good movies watched over a number of years. (I'd say that the years I've spent watching movies are the best of my life, except I think that makes me sound a bit pathetic.) Also, it's Memorial Day and that's a movie about World War II.

3. The number listed next to each film is its ranking on Flickchart out of 4289 films. (Which is nearly 250 fewer films that I've actually seen -- I am just very behind in adding them.) I thought about listing each film as xxxx/4289, before I realized I'd be writing 4289 88 times, 87 of which would be redundant. However, I have included a percentile, to give you another quick way to assess where this film sits relative to all 4289 I've seen (or, er, ranked).

Suggestion: If you get overwhelmed, just note the order of the titles and skip the blurbs. If something really shocks you, read the blurb.

Don't think we need to delay any more, do you? Let's get into it:

88. Gigi (1958, Vicente Minnelli) - 3838 (11%)

This would not have been my guess for worst best picture, but I certainly did not like it. There's one song in it that I think kind of redeems it (no, not the creepy "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"), but overall, this is a morally suspect piece of patriarchal bullshit -- simultaneously frivolous and damaging to social progress.

87. Around the World in 80 Days (1956, Michael Anderson) - 3656 (15%)

The fifties were just awful for best picture winners, weren't they? This was what I thought might be a leading contender for worst best when I saw it last year as part of this series. (In fact, my bottom three were all ones I had neglected until this series.) I found this movie dramatically inert, culturally insensitive, and in all other ways full of meaningless bluster. The remake is like ten times better, and it's not even all that good.

86. Tom Jones (1963, Tony Richardson) - 3628 (15%)

Probably the worst looking best picture winner, and one of the oddest. As I said in my post about it, it reminded me more of an episode of Benny Hill than a period piece with some pretensions toward seriousness. Even my love for Albert Finney could not lead me to consider this as any more than a strange tonal misfire and one of the more improbable best picture winners of all time.

85. The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder) - 3586 (16%)

Another that I thought was a likely contender for my least favorite. What was Billy Wilder thinking? I probably need to heed my own advice about movies from other eras, remembering that certain things that seem cliche were actually brand new back then, and this story about alcoholism is probably a shining example of that. But my goodness is it heavy-handed, and oh so overwrought.

84. Crash (2005, Paul Haggis) - 3213 (25%)

From one type of shining example to another, this is the shining example of the movie everyone agrees should never have won best picture. The weirdest thing about Crash is that I remember stumbling out into the daylight and saying to my wife (then girlfriend) that it was probably the best movie I'd seen so far that year. That was in the summer so it wasn't saying as much, but what a thought to have about a movie you would grow to hate upon the slightest consideration of it after the fact. (The huge amounts of backlash certainly helped in that regard.)

83. How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford) - 3209 (25%)

The first movie on this list that earns its spot just by boring me. Before I ever saw this, an ex-girlfriend referred to it as "How Long Was My Movie," and I don't think I ever fully got that pre-damning out of my head. It is indeed a long slow movie that ultimately just left me shrugging. (Interestingly, it's less than two hours long.)

82. The Life of Emile Zola (1937, William Dieterle) - 3054 (29%)

One of the other worst-looking best picture winners, this one is pretty much totally lacking in artfulness and dynamism. It's basically the meeting of a courtroom movie and a biopic, and it's kind of the worst of both. Yawn.

81. The Broadway Melody (1929, Harry Beaumont) - 2659 (38%)

I graded this one majorly on a curve, giving it points for the era in which it was made (or rather, not subtracting points from it for that reason). It's not really a good movie but I found it appealing enough. This is the one that prompted them to change the rules, as one of the producers of the film was intimately involved in the selection of best picture (or something like that, I can't remember and I can't be bothered to look it up).

80. Cavalcade (1933, Frank Lloyd) - 2583 (40%)

Another somewhat boring choice from Oscar's first ten years, this movie at least has a certain grandiose quality as it charts a British family through some four or five decades of British history. I had a limited fondness for it.

79. The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard) - 2544 (41%)

This is one of those you'd have thought I wouldn't have seen until this series, but in actuality I caught this about ten years ago (on the same day that I saw another best picture winner, From Here to Eternity, for the first time). It's pretty dull but at least it has some good dance numbers. Probably should be ranked right around the same spot as Emile Zola -- I kind of think of these as similar films, even though they aren't.

78. Marty (1955, Delbert Mann) - 2516 (41%)

The first movie on this list that I know a lot of people love. People I respect, too. But I just couldn't get into this story of a schlub falling in love. I probably should see it again. The thing I still remember about this movie most is the thing I knew about it before I even saw it -- that it was the answer to one of the questions in Robert Redford's Quiz Show.

77. An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli) - 2510 (41%)

The first of two movies on this list that I ranked in my other ranking post this past week. As I said there, I just don't like Vincente Minnelli. (Who also directed my least favorite best picture winner, Gigi.) I probably owe this one a rewatch, but I already know I still won't be impressed by the fact that the movie just abandons its narrative for an extended expressionistic dance number at the end. Should definitely be below Marty (but is only six spots above it).

76. Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey) - 2327 (46%)

Corny and well-meaning. Definitely the first movie on the list I feel considerably more positively than negatively toward, but pretty forgettable nonetheless. But it did give us the song "Would You Like to Swing on a Star?", so there's that.

75. The Hurt Locker (2009, Kathryn Bigelow) - 2233 (48%)

This is too low. Plain and simple. However, I do still have considerable problems with the narrative of this film, changing protagonists as it does and going in a generally unsatisfying direction over a series of vignettes. It deserves better than being in my bottom 15 best picture winners ... but maybe not much better.

74. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone) - 2218 (48%)

This barely counts because I barely remember watching it in junior high, or some unfathomably long time ago. In fact, this could be the first best picture winner I ever saw. But barely does count on my movie list, because I did indeed watch it. And I barely remember being bored. Methinks I have been ranking it on reputation rather than actual enjoyment.

73. No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel & Ethan Coen) - 2199 (49%)

I admire the heck out of many aspects of this movie, more so after I saw it a second time. But I still don't like the choices the Coens make in the final third of this movie, what to show and what not to show, and how not to really end. Some people think the third act of this movie is perfect. Well, they can choose to rank it higher than I do.

72. Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) - 2008 (53%)

This movie didn't do all that much for me, honestly, when I saw it in March. I can probably blame having seen a bunch of movies about Vietnam already, but I still have a hard time figuring out why this was such a hit. I also think the death seen of [spoiler alert] is laughably melodramatic.

71. It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra) - 1967 (54%)

This has all the hallmarks of a movie I should see again, especially since I've seen (and loved) several other Frank Capra movies since I saw this. But even as much as I love Clark Gable, this one was pretty unmemorable for me.

70. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, Cecil B. DeMille) - 1964 (54%)

This was one of the bigger surprises of Audient Auscars. It's still not a particularly high ranking, but I was far more entertained by this than I expected to be. It was cheesy in a good way.

69. Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler) - 1909 (55%)

Law & Order might have thought it invented "ripped from the headlines," but Mrs. Miniver got there some five decades earlier. I suppose there were a number of World War II movies that were actually released during World War II, but this still seemed like a pretty bold stroke. Not that memorable otherwise, though.

68. Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood) - 1893 (56%)

I was probably more grumpy about this winning than No Country winning, but for some reason I rate it higher -- perhaps because No Country beat one of my favorite movies of the past 15 years, There Will Be Blood, while Baby only beat the still-very-good The Aviator. It's a good movie, it's just not my good movie. Didn't connect with it emotionally. I do like to make fun of it by saying "mo chuisle" at random times, as though that Irish phrase is some indication of its unconvincing sentimentality.

67. Gentleman's Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan) - 1875 (56%)

This one came to me with a lot of negative attention upfront. Someone (my wife?) characterized it as didactic and overwrought. Given that kind of introduction, I don't remember all that much about it, even though I saw it within the last ten years. Liked it better than I thought I would, given the advanced billing. The subject is anti-semitism, an important topic especially for that time.

66. The Sting (1973, George Roy Hill) - 1770 (59%)

One of the first best picture winners I saw that I remember being disappointed by. (Also, the best picture winner from the year I was born.) The story of a complicated long-con just wasn't that long for my memory, despite the star wattage of Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

65. All the King's Men (1949, Robert Rossen) - 1727 (60%)

This seems to have gotten ranked a little higher than I meant to rank it. I liked this movie fine, but even less than a year after seeing it I remember very little about it.

64. Out of Africa (1985, Sydney Pollack) - 1671 (61%)

I don't think I really thought all that much of this movie when I saw it, but I'm also pretty sure I thought I missed something, or that I was too dense to figure out why it was so good. Its reputation has come to be that of one of the more forgettable best picture winners, so I was probably right on in the first place. For some reason, I'm still ranking this at a very respectable percentile.

63. Oliver! (1968, Carol Reed) - 1523 (64%)

This is one of the others I saw prior to becoming a cinephile. I have a real fondness for it, even if I don't know if that fondness is based on anything real. I should probably have some "more!!" of this before I know how I really feel about it.

62. Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis) - 1513 (65%)

I like Forrest Gump pretty well. I think I'd even see it a second time, if only to marvel at some of the technical tricks they pull off. But it's hard to avoid the backlash on this one.

61. Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott) - 1450 (66%)

Gladiator might deserve to be ranked a bit higher, but not a lot higher. I know one Flickcharter who has this ranked at #1, which is obviously too high. But it's a pretty rousing spectacle. Side note: Russell Crowe, who looks kind of like me, has never looked more like me than in some of the scenes of this movie.

60. My Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor) - 1410 (67%)

A pretty highly ranked movie from this past year's challenge ... but not quite as highly ranked as I thought it might be. I was really charmed by this, especially coming off the awful Gigi, which has some of the same dynamics (and the same composer and lyricist, Lerner and Loewe). One of those movies that further awakened me to the talents of the great Audrey Hepburn.

59. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton) - 1371 (68%)

If you can believe it I actually reviewed this movie. No, not in 1979 -- I was six then. I reviewed it in helping flesh out the review section of All Movie Guide. This is a really solid film if not for one factor that really gives me pause -- it's much more his story than hers. The title promised something more balanced. I'd rank My Fair Lady above it at the very least.

58. Terms of Endearment (1983, James L. Brooks) - 1329 (69%)

I have to assume I'm ranking this on reputation as a best picture winner because I'm not particularly stirred by this movie. Pretty maudlin. Jack Nicholson is fun though.

57. Gandhi (1981, Richard Attenborough) - 1276 (70%)

One of the last films I watched for the challenge, and I really liked it. I suppose it suffers some of the problems with your typical bloated Oscar biopic, but Kingsley is great and the key moments in his life were filmed expertly (and were real eye openers to me in some cases).

56. A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann) (72%) - 1222

I don't remember a lot about this film, which I saw maybe 15 years ago, except that I really, really liked it. Would like to see this one again. Fifty-sixth does not really seem like a suitable position for this, though the percentile is decent.

55. Chariots of Fire (1981, Hugh Hudson) - 1210 (72%)

Here's a film that would be ranked lower if I had re-ranked it after watching it again five years ago. Thinking I loved it (because I always loved the score), I discovered in 2011 that it's at least somewhat pedestrian. But it still holds that comparatively lofty rank because I never re-ranked it. Might drop ten spots on a re-rank.

54. Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford) - 1186 (72%)

Here's another one I am probably ranking on the general prestige of having won best picture. It's probably not as overwrought as I remember it ... but I remember it as pretty overwrought.

53. 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen) - 1155 (73%)

I wanted to like 12 Years a Slave more than this. Some of the aesthetic and dramatic choices are absolutely enthralling, and there are immensely powerful moments. But I remain bothered by the structure of the film, which switches from Solomon's story to Patsy's story. That doesn't quite work.

52. In the Heat of the Night (1967, Norman Jewison) - 1101 (74%)

A really incendiary examination of racism in the south among fellow police officers. Should be ranked higher.

51. Cimarron (1931, Wesley Ruggles) - 1077 (75%)

Okay, here's a major ranking anomaly. I do count Cimarron as one of my bigger surprises in Audient Auscars, but this is ridiculous. Like Chariots of Fire, should probably be at least ten spots lower. But this is a surprisingly good early frontier epic. And it still doesn't make my top 50 best picture winners, so ... yeah, maybe it's ranked alright.

50. West Side Story (1961, Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise) - 1053 (75%)

At first blush I thought this classic musical was a bit small-scale, but its heartfelt performances ultimately won me over. One of the more pleasing viewings from Audient Auscars.

49. Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz) - 1034 (76%)

The film most desperately in need of a revisit on the whole list. I saw it for the first time about ten years ago, and it just didn't really grab me. I need to have a second Casablanca reckoning, stat.

48. The Last Emperor (1987, Bernardo Bertolucci) - 1002 (77%)

Was quite taken with this, my last viewing in Audient Auscars. Seems like it should be higher, especially than the next couple ahead of it on the list.

47. The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin) - 994 (77%)

Since my overriding takeaway from The French Connection was a feeling of disappointment, it should not be ranked this high. I love the 1970s and I love that car chase and I love the film's aesthetic, so I think I think I should like this more than I do. It would benefit from either a revisit or a reranking.

46. Wings (1927, William A. Wellmann) - 981 (77%)

Like Cimarron, this has an inflated ranking, but I did quite like it when I watched it in a month of Clara Bow movies a couple years back. It's fun and rousing and quite an accomplishment for the era in which it was made. It deserves a high ranking ... just maybe not this high.

45. You Can't Take It With You (1938, Frank Capra) - 976 (77%)

I don't remember this film all that well but I remember finding it joyously satisfying. Capra does that to me generally, I guess. Would like to see this again.

44. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler) - 916 (79%)

This one had a pretty big impact on me. Not only was it a profound consideration of men returning from war, but what about that incredible performance by Harold Russell -- who really lost his hands in World War II.

43. Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger) - 895 (79%)

I respect this movie a lot more than I actually like it. Music and setting and an elegiac ending go far.

42. Spotlight (2016, Thomas McCarthy) - 806 (81%)

Last year's best picture winner is an incredibly solid film that I probably fall just short of loving. I may watch it again, but I may not watch it again. I do cherish it, though.

41. Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman) - 763 (82%)

I saw Amadeus so long ago that I really only still carry snippets of it with me. But those snippets are very positive. Been meaning to rewatch this one for some time.

40. The King's Speech (2010, Tom Hooper) - 754 (82%)

I think of myself as anti-King's Speech because I so badly wanted The Social Network to win that year. But really, it's quite good. Satisfying.

39. Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden) - 746 (83%)

Very much like The King's Speech in that I clearly wanted another film to win that year (Saving Private Ryan), but could not deny the affection I felt for the eventual winner. Perhaps slightly less affection than this, but I stand by the ranking.

38. From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemman) - 738 (83%)

Really solid wartime romance. I visited the beach in Hawaii where "the scene" was filmed. Good on Fred Zinnemann -- he directed two best picture winners (also A Man for All Seasons).

37. Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler) - 731 (83%)

I watched Ben-Hur over four nights a couple years ago ... but the cumulative effect of it was still pretty powerful. One of the classic grandiose epics, with amazing chariot scenes. Will be really curious to see Timur Bekmambetov's remake this year. At the very least it should be visually audacious. (Good on William Wyler for directing three best picture winners -- also The Best Years of Our Lives and Mrs. Miniver).

36. American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes) - 703 (84%)

As discussed in last week's post ranking movies with "American" in the title, this made my top ten of 1999, but I haven't been eager to get back to it. Suspect it dated pretty quickly. But still retain very positive memories from that one viewing.

35. Patton (1970, Franklin J. Schaffner) - 688 (84%)

My favorite of Audient Auscars. Thorough and enthralling biopic that rarely went where I thought it would go.

34. Grand Hotel (1932, Edmund Goulding) - 669 (84%)

I don't know why but Grand Hotel really stuck with me. Love the conceit of following the different stories within the day-to-day life of an ornate and bustling hotel. There isn't an older best picture winner I've ranked higher.

33. The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius) - 643 (85%)

I thought The Artist was delightful, but it does seem like it could have been a bit tighter. There are lower ranked movies on this list I like better.

32. The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino) - 623 (85%)

Really unsettling and memorable, but I think I have always been ranking this a bit higher than my true feelings about it. Unconvincing ending.

31. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, Frank Lloyd) - 613 (86%)

I got a little carried away with ranking this one, which I watched during my Decades series in a month devoted to the 1930s. It's really good, but probably not this really good. Good on Frank Lloyd, he also directed Cavalcade.

30. The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola) - 543 (87%)

I don't know how to rank The Godfather Part II because the only time I watched it I watched the discs out of sequence. Yes, this is actually a thing that happened. Embarrassing as hell, but at least my wife was a co-sponsor of this egregious error. I will watch it again soon.

29. The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder) - 523 (88%)

This is a great film, one of Wilder's best. Feels like it should be higher than 29th. Manages to balance tones perfectly, as it alternates between funny and sad, and ends up just being profound.

28. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, Peter Jackson) - 472 (89%)

A rousing conclusion to Jackson's trilogy, and a fitting way to reward his three-film achievement. I still like The Two Towers better though.

27. Driving Miss Daisy (1989, Bruce Beresford) - 466 (89%)

This does not seem like it should be this high, but every time I think about it I think about how much it surprised me -- how much more I liked it than I expected to like it, especially since it beat out the movie I was supporting, Born on the Fourth of July. I still have that ranked higher on Flickchart, but not a lot higher.

26. On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan) - 455 (89%)

Classic Elia Kazan film with a classic Marlon Brando performance. Maybe not a personal favorite, but a damn good film that came along at the perfect time for me -- just as I was becoming a cinephile. (We watched it in my Art of the Film class senior year in high school.)

25. Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle) - 454 (89%)

This film would probably go even higher on this list -- it was my #3 film of the 2008 -- but for the fact that there's been enough backlash about it that I have caused myself to reconsider it slightly. I've only seen it that once, and probably won't be in a hurry to change that, but come on, it's a really good film. This and On the Waterfront mark the first of three sets of best picture winners ranked consecutively.

24. The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise) - 450 (90%)

Just watched this again last year, and if I made a practice of reranking movies after I see them, this would almost certainly shoot into my top ten. Love this movie. Love it.

23. Gone With the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming) - 438 (90%)

This is a deliriously ambitious and incredibly long epic that I will probably never watch again, though I may. It's a stunning achievement and I think I have been rewarding it for that more than for a strong personal affection for it.

22. Argo (2012, Ben Affleck) - 418 (90%)

My #5 of 2012 is a really solid and satisfying movie. Have not revisited it and not sure how well it stands up to scrutiny, but I'm still a big fan.

21. Hamlet (1948, Laurence Olivier) - 414 (90%)

This is probably a little high for this movie, especially since I don't think it really sticks the landing -- the climax is kind of a disappointment compared to other stagings I've seen of Hamlet. My ranking just goes to show how great the rest of it is.

20. A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard) - 374 (91%)

Sort of like Driving Miss Daisy in that I never expected to like it as much as I did. The ending really gets me. What can I say? The movie works.

19. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola) - 370 (91%)

I have now seen The Godfather twice. It still has not made a full convert of me. There are parts of it I love, but overall, it doesn't work for me as well as a number of the more recent gangster movies that are certainly indebted to it. This is a very high ranking for me, given these feelings, but a shockingly low one to most readers. I guess we're meeting somewhere in the middle.

18. The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella) - 369 (91%)

The second of two best pictures ranked consecutively (with The Godfather). Another case of expectations exceeded. Not only is this epic, but it's incredibly romantic. It's the second one that's harder to do, in my opinion.

17. Braveheart (1995, Mel Gibson) - 314 (93%)

I'd say that now we are getting into the absolute personal favorites. There are good reasons to nitpick at Braveheart, I'm sure, but at the time it came along, it was just what I needed. Intensely satisfying, and again, incredibly romantic. Felt like an unlikely winner at the time, but is one of my favorite winners -- and I even continue to think fondly of it despite knowing what a shithead Mel Gibson is.

16. Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock) - 297 (93%)

Another discovery from Art of the Film, my senior year class, this persists as one of my favorite Hitchocks. I think I've only seen it that one time, but formally and thematically, it had a huge impact on me. Need to get a rewatch of this on the docket ASAP.

15. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean) - 296 (93%)

This is probably my highest ranked film on sheer spectacle. In the sense that it probably doesn't totally qualify as a personal favorite -- despite what I said a couple films ago about entering that territory of my list -- it has definitely encroached farther in my rankings than I thought it might. But that spectacle ... my is it impressive. The third of two best pictures ranked consecutively (with Rebecca).

14. Rocky (1976, John G. Avildsen) - 280 (93%)

I may not be able to articulate what I loved so much about Rocky when I first saw it a few years ago, but I gave it five stars on Letterboxd without hesitation. Something about this movie just rises above.

13. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) - 215 (95%)

An unusually high ranking for such a recent best picture winner, but it was also one of only two best picture winners to be my #1 movie of the year (since I started keeping lists in 1996), which certainly played into my ranking enthusiasm. I'm just a tad cooler on the film after a second viewing, but it's still a stunning achievement that I love.

12. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975, Milos Forman) - 199 (95%)

I may have a slightly romanticized notion of how great this movie is, but I rank it as one of the greats, and until I see it again to be convinced otherwise, will continue to do so. Good on Milos Forman, he also directed Amadeus.

11. Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) - 193 (96%)

A rewatch of this left me a bit wanting a few years ago, but only relative to how I had previously ranked it, which was probably 50 spots higher on Flickchart. Still my favorite Allen, and with the kind of career he's had -- making enough movies so that the good ones overwhelm the bad ones -- that's saying something.

10. Rain Man (1988, Barry Levinson) - 142 (97%)

Perhaps the greatest discrepancy among best picture winners between how good I thought something was going to be, based on its advertising, and how good it actually was. I still think I've only seen this once, but man is it good.

9. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean) - 124 (97%)

Good on David Lean. As good as Lawrence of Arabia is, this is even better. A flat-out masterpiece.

8. The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese) - 122 (97%)

Has one of the worst final shots of any film I've ever seen. That just tells you how good the rest of The Departed is. My #2 of 2006.

7. Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall) - 105 (98%)

I would never have guessed how bananas I'd go over Chicago. Nothing in my history would have really predicted it. But bananas I went. It was my #2 of 2002.

6. The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme) - 93 (98%)

Say hello to the 1990s for most of the rest of the list. It was a great decade for film, and also a formative decade for me within film. The Silence of the Lambs is one of the unlikeliest best picture winners of all time in terms of subject matter, which just shows you how great it is -- even a conventionally inclined voting body could not deny it. My wife often names this as her favorite movie of all time.

5. Dances With Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner) - 85 (98%)

I still remember grumbling about this beating out the other stalwart contenders from 1990 (Goodfellas, Ghost and Awakenings) as the awards were going on ... and then I finally saw it. An emotional powerhouse of a movie. Simply unforgettable.

4. Titanic (1997, James Cameron) - 73 (98%)

Spectacle, romance ... few best picture winners combine them as well as Titantc does. I was obsessed with this film for a good year or two after it came out, and vestiges of that clearly still remain. I won't apologize for it. My #1 movie of 1997 is unique cinematic achievement, and rightly considered a masterpiece by some.

3. All About Eve (1950, Joseph L, Mankiewicz) - 61 (99%)

The movie I always think of when I occasionally doubt whether older movies can have the same impact on me as contemporary ones. This is a note-perfect movie and I love every goddamn second of it.

2. Schindler's List (1993, Steven Spielberg) - 10 (100%)

I've still only seen this once, but it is in my top ten of all time. It jumped there by winning a duel against a movie that was starting to fall for me, so perhaps it should be a tad lower, but it's an astounding document of the darkest chapter in human history, made with superlative artistic vision and a gut-punching level of emotional resonance. I should see it again, of course ... I just don't know if I can bare it.

1. Unforgiven - (1992, Clint Eastwood) - 6 (100%)

And numbers 1 and 2 come in consecutive years. What else can a person say about Clint Eastwood's revisionist western masterpiece? It's got everything, but perhaps the best proof of its absolute artistic dominance is that it is my favorite best picture winner despite the fact that westerns are one of my less favorite genres. A perfect movie.

Could I have done this differently? Could I have used my Flickchart rankings as a jumping off point, and made the necessary tweaks to get the films in an order that feels like it more genuinely reflects my feelings about them?

Probably. But it has taken ages just to write this up, and barely squeeze it into the month of May (as I promised I'd do, but otherwise have no real reason for the deadline). I'm comfortable with it existing as is ... and moving on to the next thing.

Happy Memorial Day!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lowering the (Amena)bar


And hence my streak of including director names in the titles of my posts this week continues.

Alejandro Amenabar has presided over some of my favorite movies of the last 20 years, but what's been most impressive is the variety of the Spanish director's output. Working in reverse order, his 2009 film Agora was a thinking person's sword-and-sandal epic that tackled no less than all the complexities of science and religion. It was my fourth favorite film of 2010 (the year it was released in the U.S.), and it's a film I've already seen three times. The Sea Inside, a drama about paralysis, knocked my socks off in 2004 (I didn't see it that year, but that's the year it came out). I didn't like 2001's The Others, a ghost story period piece, all that much when I first saw it, but access to a DVD copy of it compelled me to revisit it, and I kind of loved it the second time -- as discussed in this post. Probably my least favorite film of his is his 1997 debut, Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), but it's still quite a good film, and it holds an especially dear place to me as it inspired Cameron Crowe to remake it as Vanilla Sky, one of my favorite films. (Checking wikipedia, I see that Amenabar had a film in 1996 called Thesis, but I'd never heard of that, so I will stubbornly and inexplicably continue to refer to Open Your Eyes as his debut.)

Well, I guess everyone is eventually due for a little regression.

Or a lot.

For Amenabar, that comes in the form of Regression, which I guess you could call a psychological thriller about satanic cults. So it's yet another distinct area of focus for the director, probably closest genre-wise to The Others -- but really, not very close. Alas, it's also a distinct level of quality, in that it is distinctly bad.

The fact that it was available for 99-cent rental on iTunes such a short time after its nominal theatrical release should have been a dead giveaway. But Amenabar has never steered me wrong, so I decided to invest that buck even though I knew nothing about the movie other than the director and its stars (Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson, each promising in their own right).

But when a director loses it, he really loses it. Though some would argue the decline has been more steady. It's been more than six years since Agora, a film that was terrifically directed by never got much traction with audiences and remains under the radar to this day. Those who didn't like it did have some issues with the direction, as I recall. It's been twice that long since The Sea Inside, which won best foreign language film at the Oscars (and which I was quite certain yielded an Oscar nomination for Javier Bardem until I looked it up and found it not to be so). So I guess for most people, Amenabar hasn't done much since 2004, struggling to get movies made and losing small bits of his ability along the way.

His ability to direct actors seems to have vanished almost entirely. Hawke and Watson have both been good plenty of times, but they are stiff and turgid here. Genre material is somewhat familiar for Hawke, but I tend to think of Watson as a person who makes good choices. Maybe they both saw Agora and liked it as much as I did. But if so, they couldn't bring a lot to help Amenabar's dull and hammy script.

I won't tell you a lot about the story, because I'm not trying to sell you on it (obviously) or even really give it a proper review. It basically involves a girl (Watson) who has been abused by her father and possibly also a cult of satanic worshippers practicing ritual sacrifice. Hawke is the detective who seeks justice and likes to grab people by their lapels. The movie has what I think is supposed to be a surprise turn in the third act, but it's a surprise turn for the boring, and leads to an incredibly unsatisfying payoff that I think the movie thinks is supposed to be profound.

What I'm really here to do today is to mourn the profound dropoff in quality from Amenabar. But instead of just piling on this movie, I'd rather take a look at the factors outside his control that may have led to it. Looking at what seems to have happened (without delving into the particulars that are probably available on the web), Amenabar spent a long time trying to get a very ambitious, expensive pet project -- Agora -- off the ground. When that film was not a hit outside of Spain (where it was one of the highest grossing films of all time and swept the Goyas), it left Amenabar in no position to take another risk. So he was left (I imagine) scraping together funding for something with no ambition or aesthetic distinction of any kind, a weak idea weakened further by the fact that Amenabar's lack of enthusiasm for it oozes from every pore. It's not shot well, it's not acted well, it's not edited well, and it doesn't even look particularly polished. In short, it's an anonymous thriller that any hack could make, and it got essentially the equivalent of a straight-to-video release.

What can you do to help restore Amenabar to his former glory? To raise the (Amena)bar?

For starters, go watch Agora. It's streaming on Netflix now and it stars Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella and (perhaps best of all nowadays) Oscar Isaac. It's a feminist epic that looks fantastic and has nothing less than the debate between science and religion at its core. Maybe its attacks on both Christians and, to a slightly lesser extent, Jews made it a hard sell in a country like the U.S. But these should be selling points for someone who feels skeptical about organized religion, and the grand set design, camerawork and sword-and-sandal trappings should be a selling point for everybody else. I think I might watch it again (for the fourth time) myself in the next few days ... even if only to get the taste of Regression out of my mouth.

And Netflix pays attention to its numbers. If enough of you watch it, perhaps Netflix will get Amenabar's career going again by offering him some kind of deal, a deal where he can get back to doing what he wants.

A deal where he can be great again.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

From Rififi to Waititi


I don't do weekly viewing recap posts on this blog, but if I did, this would be a good title for this week's.

It was a bit of a wild viewing week, and not just because I saw Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild.

No, it was more about the unusual near rhymes in major elements of the movies I watched, as referenced in the title of this post.

I guess I'm on a wordplay roll after my infamous* "Scarfs for Scafaria" post on Wednesday.
* - not infamous

Wednesday I saw Rififi, which I actually started on Monday night but didn't finish until two days later. (The day I finished it is the day that counts in my records as the day I viewed it.) I'd heard Jules Dassin's 1955 film referenced here and there over the years, and decided it was finally time to sit down with it. It confirmed two things I already knew about myself: 1) I like films that are well-made and have the feeling of being a bit ground-breaking, but 2) within that, the big names in French film noir (such as Le Samourai) still kind of leave me cold. Good movie though, one I probably need to watch twice before I will start appreciating it more.

Then on Friday it was Boy, directed by Taika Waititi. Waititi is about to become a hot commodity, or could anyway, as he is getting ready to shoot Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel -- one of the oddest in their recent spate of odd directing choices. Before that he may have another hit in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which just opened here on Thursday, and which would add to what he already gave us last year with the uproarious What We Do in the Shadows. It had taken me until Shadows to come around on the Maori director, though, because my lasting impression of him was 2007's Eagle vs. Shark, which I did not particularly care for. For some reason I thought Boy came first in his career, but I've since learned it came three years later -- and boy does it show additional polish. Boy is quite simply an absolute charmer, sweet and funny and sad. First rate, really.

What unusual near rhymes will I come up with next week?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Americans


Adding American Ultra to my spreadsheet of movies reminded me how many movies I've seen whose titles conform to the following format: American _______. Sometimes they're The American _______ or on rare occasions even An American _______. In any case, there are a lot of them. American Ultra makes the 24th.

I could write a post about this any old time. In fact, if I waited six weeks, July 4th might be the perfect time. Or, it probably won't be that long until I see an even 25. But there's another timely reason I'm curious about it. A few weeks back we recorded a podcast on Captain America: Civil War, and at the end of the episode, we each shared our favorite three movies with the word "America" in the title. As it happened, none of my three fit into that format -- something I found curious just because I knew how many I'd seen that did. They were, in order from worst to best: Transamerica, Coming to America and Once Upon a Time in America. According to Flickchart, of course.

It was an easy topic for us simply because there are so many movies with the word "America" in the title. If the only criterion is that the word "America" must appear somewhere in the title, it nearly doubles my total to 46. Which is probably only a fraction of the total number of movies that have "America" in the title. I wouldn't be surprised if there were over a thousand.

Might as well write a post in which I rank them, right?

Just to make it easier on you, though, I'll halve that list. I'll exclude all that ones that don't conform to the format listed in the opening paragraph, and then just to make the halving even, I'll also exclude American Ultra. There's a good reason to do that, actually -- I have a policy of waiting a month before adding a film to Flickchart, just to give my impression of each film a chance to settle in my mind before ranking it. That way, I'll know it's as correct as I can make it, and not overly influenced by the radically positive or negative emotions of the viewing. According to these rules, I won't be ready to add American Ultra to my Flickchart until the 22nd of June. (Since I'm so behind in adding films, it will realistically be more like September or October.)

Anyway, shall we begin? Let's start with best and go to worst. All Flickchart rankings are out of a total of 4289 movies I've ranked on my chart. (Remember, I'm behind.)

1. American Movie (1999, Chris Smith) - Flickchart ranking: #403

A funny, eccentric and touching documentary on one redneck's American dream -- to make a horror movie called Coven (rhymes with "woven") in the Minnesota winter, with only the help of his stoner best friend and a senile financier. A splendid example of Americana, and of the documentary form.

2. The American President (1995, Rob Reiner) - Flickchart ranking: #568

Pretty much the last in Rob Reiner's decade-plus run of masterpieces, The American President probably doesn't quite earn the "m" word, but it is a really solid populist romantic comedy about the president falling in love. Would make a good double feature with Ivan Reitman's Dave.

3. American Psycho (2000, Mary Herron) - Flickchart ranking: #582

Twisted and delicious. Although it's about a creep who murders women -- the awesome Christian Bale -- you don't have to worry too much about liking it because a) it was directed by a woman, and b) he kills more guys than women anyway. The sequence with the business cards alone makes this a glorious satire of capitalism. Murders and executions? Mergers and acquisitions? Perhaps they are the same thing.

4. American Pie (1999, Chris Weitz) - Flickchart ranking: #583

Consecutively ranked with American Psycho but nowhere near as good, American Pie is still a landmark coming of age gross-out comedy that sent mainstream comedy down new paths -- for better or for worse. The original is still a delight, I would imagine, and I'd be able to confirm if I had seen it at any point in the last 15 years.

5. American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes) - Flickchart ranking: #703

I don't like the 1999 best picture winner as much as some people do, but I did have it in my top ten that year, and was not displeased with it winning. I imagine it would not age particularly well and have dutifully avoided it since then.

6. American Splendor (2003, Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini) - Flickchart ranking: #1272

I think of myself as liking this movie more than this, which means it's probably ranked too low. One of Paul Giamatti's better roles and better performances, as he plays Harvey Pekar, the graphic novelist. Would really like to see this one again.

7. An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis) - Flickchart ranking: #1567

A trailblazing horror comedy and one of the best uses of practical effects you will see on film, I nonetheless don't love this movie because I saw it at the wrong age (sometime in my late twenties I think). If I'd seen it as a teenager, it could be a thousand spots higher on my chart.

8. The American Astronaut (2001, Cory McAbee) - Flickchart ranking: #1718

A truly oddball black and white indie comedy that seems to take its inspiration from Dadaism, this cult movie traveled around the country in specially hosted screenings that were attended by the director, or so I understand. An Australian friend attended one of these screenings, bought the movie, and loaned it to me about two years ago. It's a gas.

9. American History X (1998, Tony Kaye) - Flickchart ranking: #1853

This movie contains one of the most unforgettable scenes of violence I will probably ever see in a film. The rest of it is okay. Actually, I think the first half of this film is grim and uncompromising ... and then the second half is entirely too compromising. Perhaps Tony Kaye agreed as he disavows the cut of the film we've seen and tried to have his name removed from the credits.

10. American Gigolo (1980, Paul Schrader) - Flickchart ranking: #1862

I enjoyed this film a fair amount but ultimately only give it a mixed endorsement. As a snapshot of the era, it's fantastic. As a story, I remember having found it lacking. Though it has been more than 15 years since I've seen it, so I don't remember it all that well.

11. American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell) - Flickchart ranking: #1926

Overrated. Does some interesting things in the first half, then becomes sort of a mess.

12. American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas) - Flickchart ranking: #2002

Probably most in need of a rewatch on this list. In fact, both this and Dazed and Confused need a rewatch, so maybe it's just that I don't appreciate films like this as much as I think I do.

Okay, we're halfway.

13. American Gangster (2007, Ridley Scott) - Flickchart ranking: #2093

I actually kind of hated this movie the first time I saw it. I had the occasion to watch it again and ended up liking it a lot better. I still have a big problem with the change in the last 15 minutes, and with Denzel Washington saying "My man" every time he's about to kill somebody.

14. American Pimp (1999, Allen & Albert Hughes) - Flickchart ranking: #2162

Pretty good documentary about pimps that has probably slipped farther on my chart than it should. I remember thinking the filmmaking wasn't very aesthetically appealing. However, this film does have an interesting place in my viewing history. It was the 1500th film I'd ever seen, and I chose that occasion to start keeping track of the order in which I watched movies. So it's the first on a list that now contains an additional 3,021 titles.

15. American Teen (2008, Nanette Burstein) - Flickchart ranking: #2269

Another documentary that deserves a better ranking than this. It looks at a cross-section of teens in one midwestern American town, and gets a pretty good level of intimacy as well as doing some pretty interesting things from a visual standpoint. Ultimately sort of forgettable though.

16. American Dream (1992, Barbara Kopple) - Flickchart ranking: #2481

Third straight documentary. Kopple actually spoke at my college and showed this film not long after its release. You'd think that alone would launch it higher. But especially nowadays it suffers in comparison to Kopple's masterpiece, Harlan County U.S.A., which I saw about five years ago.

17. An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli) - Flickchart ranking: #2510

And this one may be too high. I've gotten ever more evidence over the years that I don't really like Vincente Minnelli, but this was where it started. Just not a fan of this one.

18. American Pie 2 (2001, J.B. Rogers) - Flickchart ranking: #2633

First (and only) sequel. American Pie 2 is fine.

19. American Outlaws (2001, Les Mayfield) - Flickchart ranking: #3412

Big jump here of nearly 800 spots. I actually kind of like this movie, probably more than the ranking suggests. But it was definitely one of those "better than expected" movies, as it was roundly rebuffed by critics and audiences upon its release.

20. American Dreamz (2006, Paul Weitz) - Flickchart ranking: #3765

Just weird enough to be an interesting failure. A spoof of American Idol that goes to some odd places and makes some disastrous tonal choices. But I would probably watch it again.

21. American Buffalo (1996, Michael Corrente) - Flickchart ranking: #3785

Least likely film to be this low on the list. But David Mamet adaptations have a history of being disastrous if not done correctly (most often when Mamet himself is adapting them). Corrente's adaptation, starring Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz, is dime-store and ugly.

22. An American Haunting (2006, Courtney Solomon) - Flickchart ranking: #4077

The movie I thought would be last, but as it turns out, there's one worse. Can't wait to see what it is. It's a laughably ridiculous period horror movie, and requires no further discussion of its merits (or lack thereof).

23. An American Carol (2008, David Zucker) - Flickchart ranking: #4226

Oh yeah, right. This awful, mean-spirited, right-wing parody of Michael Moore movies was my lowest ranked movie of 2008.

If pressed, I'd tell you that American Ultra would probably slot in between American Gigolo and American Hustle, making it my new #11 on this list. I love the filmmaking and it does some things very right, but some other questionable choices -- mostly tonal -- kept it from rising higher in my estimation. Still, interesting idea for a spy movie, one I haven't quite seen. It might have been better off being ten percent more conventional, actually.

Shit, now what will I write for 4th of July ... well, good thing I live in Australia, where the 4th of July is known as "Monday."

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Scarfs for Scafaria


I have two longer posts I'm working on right now, but as I don't seem to be getting much time to work on them, I thought I'd give you something short to tide you over.

Something, in fact, that barely crosses the threshold of being worth writing about, if it crosses it at all.

Then again, I've probably posted for lesser reasons than a little bit of wordplay.

Last night I went to see The Meddler, directed by Lorene Scafaria, and I wore a scarf. It's only a week away from winter here in the Southern Hemisphere (they switch seasons on the first of the month), and my wife -- who had been outside more recently than I had -- advised me to wear a scarf when I went to the movies last night. I was glad I did, though when I ran into a friend from my hometown at the grocery store after the movie, he chastised me about losing my New England weather-related toughness.

As for the actual movie, I think I've reached that point with Lorene Scafaria where I think she just doesn't work for me. I hated Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, which she wrote, but I wasn't holding that against in her in summoning a huge amount of anticipation for her directorial debut, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. When that too disappointed, I still was not overly discouraged, as I was definitely looking forward to her second directorial feature, The Meddler. At least in those other two movies, she was really going for something that didn't quite work. The Meddler I just found generic and uninteresting, aside from an enjoyable lead performance by Susan Sarandon. This despite the movie getting a ton of praise. It's probably her best movie, but that's not saying a lot, unfortunately.

Maybe the scarf would have been better to cover my eyes than my neck.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Pretty indeed


Remember when I used to sometimes write a blog post just to sing the praises of a particular poster?

No?

Go back a ways, or follow the "movie posters" label. You'll find them.

Someone in my Flickcharters Facebook group posted this poster today with a single word that perfectly encapsulates it:

"Pretty."

I agreed, so I decided this might make some nice artwork to adorn my blog on a day when I actually have nothing to say for once.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Bad finish to HRAFF


In name/title only.

The closing night film was The Bad Kids, which I watched back in January not two weeks after it debuted at Sundance. I gave it four stars on Letterboxd and became one of its staunch supporters, though that did not distinguish me from anyone else. We were all only too eager to jump on the enthusiasm train toward its inevitable inclusion in the program. Our program coordinator had actually flown to Utah for Sundance, the last major festival before our program had to be finalized, and that kind of financial expenditure needed to be justified by at least one selection from that festival, and probably more than one. (In fact, three were chosen, and a fourth was offered a slot but passed for an undisclosed reason.)

In fact, it was anything but a bad way to finish the festival. And again, I almost didn't go. Will explain that quickly without dwelling on it.

Given all the nights I had been out and that I was going out Friday night as well, my wife decided to claim Thursday night as a night to go to opening night of another film festival, the St. Kilda Film Festival, which shows short films. Some of her co-workers were going to go, and she had had fun when she went last year. So I advised the ticket coordinator that I wouldn't be going to closing night after all, in kind of a deja vu email conversation to when I'd given up my ticket to opening night. In another bit of deja vu, I then recanted that stance -- just like I'd done with opening night -- when my wife found out that most of her co-workers weren't going to St. Kilda and she'd just as soon pass. So in the end I did go, feeling like the ticketing coordinator must think I'm the biggest idiot in the world. (I actually met her at the closing party and we got along famously.)

I liked the film just a smidge better the second time around, as its merits had quickly faded in my memory -- or more likely, just become part of the big blur that characterized the end of five intense months of vetting films. It's directed by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, the directors of the great documentary Lost in La Mancha, about Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to make a Don Quixote movie. Fulton and Pepe got an intimate level of access to a high school in the Joshua Tree area that enrolls at-risk 11th and 12th graders who are otherwise likely to drop out. They shot the film beautifully and got a startling level of emotional honesty from their subjects. You should see it arriving at a cinema near you later in the year, I would think.

Fulton and Pepe were there for a Q&A, and were a delight to listen to. They were also available at the after party, and I thought of approaching them to tell them how much I'd enjoyed La Mancha -- except that I saw that film a good ten years ago, and I'd be utterly unprepared for any follow-up conversation on the topic that might transpire. It's not like an awareness of their previous credits made me a particularly keen observer, since La Mancha was referenced in the festival booklet. So I decided to just let them be.

The after party. Well. If I thought I drank a lot at opening night, I hadn't yet fully tested my limits, it appears. In fact, I stayed so long that I missed the last tram at 12:15, and ended up walking home from downtown. I could have gotten a cab, but let's just say the state I was in made the walk plenty easy, and I had music on my iPod to provide additional accompaniment.

And though only three of the eight members of our featuring programming team were there -- kind of a surprise -- one was my viewing partner, who had been through the whole experience with me in that she and I had seen almost all the same films. We snapped some pictures and chatted up some others, some whom I sort of knew, others I was just meeting. And one wine glass led to another, and before I knew it, yeah, I'd missed that tram.

Still don't know if I'm in for another year of HRAFF, as there'll be a hell of a lot of more viewings between me and another closing night. But the satisfaction of experiencing the festival has been worth the work. And oh yeah, there'll probably be wine at next year's after party as well.

For now, a return to a more everyday viewing schedule ... and maybe some sleep.

Friday, May 20, 2016

You can't spell HRAFF without two F's


The most unusual double feature I have ever unwittingly planned was the one where both of the movies contain a euphemism for the word "fuck" in their titles.

That happened on Tuesday night, when I went to see the HRAFF screening of the movie GTFO, followed by a regular old cinematic screening of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Be it the word "Foxtrot" or just the plain old letter F, both movies were trying to tell me about the word "fuck" without actually saying it.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is, of course, the acronym WTF as spoken in the military alphabet. I would probably know that anyway, but I know it even more because I've memorized the military alphabet as part of my job. I regularly read out serial numbers to users and vendors, and the military alphabet lets a person do that without any confusion or fears of being misheard ("Did you say C or B or D?"). Here, I'll show you: alpha bravo charlie delta echo foxtrot golf hotel india juliet kilo lima mike november oscar papa quebec romeo sierra tango uniform victor whiskey x-ray yankee zulu. (You have no idea how quickly I typed that, but it was pretty quickly.)

Then GTFO stands for Get the Fuck Out, an acronym male gamers regularly hurl at female gamers who are trying to share their testosterone-laden gaming space. (The documentary is about the unsafe and abusive environment for female gamers and what to do about it.)

Unfortunately, I kind of wanted both of these movies to get the fuck out. I gave both of them 2.5 stars, and I think I may have been even a bit generous to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. (It's just hard to be mean to Tina Fey.) GTFO is on an important subject, but it's a poorly made film -- badly lit and using some interview footage filmed over Skype. It just doesn't look very nice, it's edited poorly, and the information is conveyed haphazardly. Then Whiskey is kind of a big collection of "so what?" Fey tries her hardest to be chipper and appealing, but she doesn't come across all that well, and the characters are difficult to care a thing about.

Because I was worried that I might be told to get the fuck out, I told a funny little lie before my screening of Whiskey.

I was well within my rights to be using my critics card, as the movie had only been out for five days and it was an approved night of the week to use the card. Yet I stumbled when confronted by an innocent question from the person printing me my ticket:

"Are you going be reviewing this film?"

Now, to be clear, she was not asking me this because she wanted to determine the validity of me using my critics card. If anything, she was starstruck. "Here is this great person before me, who has the power to tell other people to see movies or not see them." If anything, she couldn't believe that she was in some way involved in the process of a movie review coming into existence.

But I acted on instinct and saw a threat. "Yes," I said.

Well, I'm not reviewing this movie. My editor reviewed it like two weeks ago. And disliked it even more than I did.

But she wasn't done. She asked where my review would be appearing. Still starstruck, mind you. Still not checking up on me.

"ReelGood," I said, continuing the lie. I mean, that is the site I write for. But I did not venture a "dot com" or any other indication of what type of media organization ReelGood actually was. If she really wanted to follow up on our conversation, she could do the digging.

Not that it will ever come back to me, but if it did, I could always say I thought I was reviewing it and hadn't realized that we'd already reviewed it.

When I got inside, I jokingly texted my editor that he needed to repost his Whiskey review tomorrow and put my name on it.

To quote Curtis Armstrong, sometimes you just have to say WTF.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

HRAFF - My baby


When you sign up to help program a film festival, you never know exactly how much your own imprint will appear on the final selections.

Sure, films you liked are going to get selected. You'd be quite the useless programmer if you ended up being at odds with everyone on all the selections.

But I didn't know how many films I personally championed would make the final cut.

The best example of that was The Armor of Light, the third film I've made it to as part of this year's HRAFF (Human Rights Arts & Film Festival). I've been calling it "my baby," and I got my "proud papa" moment on Monday night, with my wife sitting next to me.

Abigail Disney's documentary is about an evangelical minister and the mother of a black teenager who was shot to death over a dispute involving the volume of his rap music. The two come together to make unlikely crusaders for gun control -- unlikely because his constituency is comprised of massive defenders of the second amendment, and because as she states so movingly, she never expected she would ever personally be in the position of mourning a slain child. It's a truly profound consideration full of twists, turns and defied expectations. Your average liberal viewers will be naturally unsettled to meet the Reverend Rob Schenck, a one-time anti-abortion activist who used intense rhetoric in pro-life rallies and who currently ministers to Republican politicians in Washington D.C., instinctively believing that he could never adopt a viewpoint that's close to their hearts. Yet his personal examination of the conflict between being pro-life and pro-gun is engaging and poignant. And Lucy McBath's testimony about the loss of her son and her campaign to prevent other parents from being in her position ... well, it's hard to choke back the tears. Not only is the film challenging and invigorating, it also has some of the best cinematography I've ever seen in a documentary.

I gave The Armor of Light five stars on Letterboxd after I watched it in September, and ultimately ranked it 14th out of all the movies I saw in 2015. (I now wish I'd had the courage to rank it in my top ten.) Immediately after my viewing I began talking off the ears of all the other programmers. My viewing partner also liked it a lot, but stopped short of giving it the rating of "Lock" I had confidently bestowed it. So while we jointly loved some films that didn't end up making it, The Armor of Light was really all on me. My enthusiasm put The Armor of Light on a shortlist of highly rated films for other programmers to watch, and soon I had a couple other passionate supporters on my side, including the program coordinator. It ended up being one of the first films offered a slot in the program.

So while I saw other films I was interested in go down to defeat -- in some instances because I knew the festival director didn't particularly care for it -- I always had The Armor of Light in my back pocket as one certain programming victory for me. I wrote the blurb that appeared next to it in the program, and couldn't wait to watch it with an audience.

Which almost didn't happen.

Although I'd told my wife I wanted to take her to this showing not long after the schedule was released, it wasn't until a couple days before that she actually asked my sister-in-law about babysitting on Monday night. I could kind of understand her hesitation. The movie didn't start until 8:45, so it would be a somewhat late night for my sister-in-law. While in some respects it would be an easier night than some of the times she babysits for us, as the kids would already be in pajamas by the time she came over, the fact of the matter was that she wouldn't be getting home until 11:30 or so -- on a school night. I suspect this weighed on my wife's mind as she procrastinated asking her sister.

My sister-in-law was all too happy to oblige -- she's good like that -- but then came the sickness that hit our family, in different ways for each of us. My older son has been sniffling for a couple weeks, and the younger one got sent home early on Thursday when one of his carers informally diagnosed him with hand foot and mouth disease. Whether he really had it or not I'm not sure of, since he seemed perky as hell. But we kept him home on Friday and weren't sure we'd be sending him Monday until Monday morning. Then my wife had been sneezing incessantly since early Sunday morning, and I had a tickle in my throat that I was sure would turn into something more. Needless to say, an 8:45 screening on Monday night was looking doubtful -- especially for my wife, but really, for both of us.

By Monday morning, though, everyone was fine, and we haven't looked back since.

Well, it turned into a lovely evening. My wife and I got down there early enough to have a nice dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant near the cinema, and even each dared to have a drink with dinner, despite the possibility it would cause our eyelids to droop during the movie. I didn't worry so much about myself -- I knew it was engaging enough that I wouldn't doze off, or if I did, it would be okay since I'd already seen it anyway. I worried about my wife, who's slightly less likely than I am to fight off sleep at the movies (in part because she goes a lot less than I do), but falls asleep on the couch at home all the time.

Fortunately, these fears were also unfounded. I could tell my wife was pretty gripped right from the start. There's some very emotional testimony by Lucy McBath not ten minutes into the movie, and I could hear my wife fighting back tears. She also laughed at a few of the film's lighter or more ridiculous moments (Sarah Palin makes an appearance), and scoffed when she was supposed to scoff.

Hers was the only reaction I could really gauge, unfortunately. There were maybe 40 others in the theater -- not the sell-out I was hoping for -- and they too reacted audibly at various junctures. I might have also caught a little weeping here and there too, I don't know. But really extrapolating much from their behavior was impossible.

I don't know exactly what I was expecting. I knew a standing ovation was probably out of the question, since this doesn't really seem to be that kind of festival -- the audience didn't even stand and applaud on opening night, even though that was a really good film and they knew the filmmaker was present.

But I decided it didn't really matter. This was my moment of glory, and nothing was going to sully it for me. I didn't feel inclined to look for a specific response. I already had all the validation I needed, that a little movie I'd unwittingly watched in three different sittings on my laptop at home, in part while putting away laundry, had made it to the big screen as part of a festival on human rights. It felt that in whatever small way, this was my contribution to making the world a better place.

And it was a joy to do something I wished I'd have done in the first place, if I'd had any reason to suspect it would be so great -- watch the whole thing in one uninterrupted sitting.

And yeah, it was pretty obvious that the evening's main draw was the film playing in the other screening room, the third showing of the opening night film, Chasing Asylum. That one looked pretty much sold out.

But I'd like to think that it was our 40 in my screening room who were really having their perspectives, their very minds, expanded.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Ernest, not Angry


On Sunday my son chose Ernest & Celestine over The Angry Birds Movie.

He didn't know he was choosing Ernest & Celestine, because he didn't know what it was, and we didn't end up seeing either movie anyway. But he knew enough about The Angry Birds Movie to reject it, which was the most interesting takeaway. Essentially, he preferred whatever was behind Door #2 to The Angry Birds Movie.

I'll explain.

Ernest & Celestine, a 2013 Academy award nominee for best animated feature, was supposed to be the third movie I watched for this year's Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF), which I helped curate. It was part of the festival's children's program called Cineseeds, which is just two features -- one aimed at younger children, one at older -- on the festival's second Sunday.

I was going to take my five-year-old to see it, in part just for an activity on a Sunday afternoon, but in part also to show him the kinds of things that daddy has been up to. In fact, daddy had not seen Ernest & Celestine either, but oddly enough, was directly responsible for it being part of the festival.

The committee that approves selections for Cineseeds is notoriously selective, and there had been about 15 choices we'd vetted as a group that they had ultimately ruled out, despite enthusiastic recommendations on our part in some cases. Desperate, the festival coordinator contacted me and asked if I could provide another list of options, based on my wealth of general cinematic knowledge. They didn't have to be new releases, so that was supposed to make it easier. I did my best to come up with some on my own, but also asked my Flickcharters Facebook discussion group for recommendations of (loosely) human rights-themed choices that would be appropriate for kids. Ernest & Celestine was one of their recommendations, and I passed it on to the coordinator, having no idea if it was a useful suggestion or not, and even less assumption that it would actually be selected.

It was selected, so that gave me a little bit of extra pride that made me think I should take my son -- even though he's a lot more into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers these days than hand-drawn movies about a bear and a mouse. Just to be on the safe side, I didn't show him any images from it.

As he's been somewhat difficult to please at the movies, I expected he'd need more of a buy-in, but he was willing to go. In fact, he seemed cautiously excited about it.

Unfortunately, we've all been a bit sick the last few days, and the movie was starting at 2:45, kind of a problematic start time for a number of reasons. That meant we needed a full other activity to start the day, and ended up going to the home of one of my wife's friends, who has a son just a few months older than my oldest. Three hours over there took enough out of me that a nap seemed more appealing to me around 1 o'clock than being dropped off at the theater early and having to kill 90 minutes until the movie started.

Waking from my nap way too late at just before 2, I randomly decided to check the HRAFF website to make sure I'd gotten the start time right. I had -- but I also hadn't anticipated the demand. The movie was sold out. A ticket had already been reserved for me, so that wasn't a problem, but I'd never bothered to buy one for my son, not wanting to commit the money if we didn't end up going. I had been monitoring the website, though, and it hadn't even been listed as "selling fast" in the days leading up to it.

As my wife was sicker than I was and needed her own nap even more (while the younger one was having his), there was no doubt that my son and I were still going to try to make the movie. So I texted the festival coordinator, wondering if she might have some idea what to do. She wasn't actually there, but sent me the phone number of the festival director, who would be and might have an idea. I couldn't actually read the contact card she sent through, adding a further level of complication.

While this was all transpiring, though, we needed to actually be leaving. So we went and jumped in the car, which was probably the thing that ultimately sealed our fate. We'd been meaning to go by public transportation, since parking is hard near that theater, but the unexpected delays of the later nap and lack of available tickets made the car seem like a faster choice. When traffic was also bad, the writing was on the wall that we would miss Ernest & Celestine.

Before breaking the news to my son, I quickly came up with what I thought was an air-tight backup plan. Checking the Hoyts app on my phone for any child-appropriate new releases, I struck gold -- The Angry Birds Movie. I didn't expect it to be good, mind you, but I expected it to have a lot more natural interest for my son's current tastes than Ernest & Celestine.

What was so lucky about that particular choice was that my son was fresh off a moment of Angry Birds-related triumph on Mother's Day, just a week before. That morning I took my kids out for pancakes and some errands at the mall, one of which was going to the video game place my older son loves. There he played an Angry Birds game that involves shooting an actual "angry bird" with an actual sling shot at a video game screen of pigs balanced on precarious wooden towers. Wherever the ball hits the screen, some amount of corresponding damage occurs to the towers. If you can create a domino effect of destruction with a particularly well-placed shot, and knock off all four pigs with one bird, you can win the grand prize of 500 tickets.

I assumed that no one ever does this. But my son did it, probably without even trying to. As he watched the tickets getting digitally applied to our game card, and all the game's pomp and circumstance involved with the perfect shot, he had a silly grin of victory on his face. Since he can often get down on himself when he isn't immediately good at things, it was great for him to have a win like this. It also was a nice early financial lesson, as having all these tickets meant he could afford to buy something in the store -- something that was actually kind of cool, not just plastic hair clips or a little hard candy. With his winnings he bought a little gun that shoots potato pellets, and he was happy as pie.

Seizing on that experience, I promoted The Angry Birds Movie as a backup plan. He barely stopped to consider it. "Nah," he said. "Not interested."

I had almost no time to revel in his good taste before he hit me with a big dollop of emotional manipulation. The idea of missing Ernest & Celestine -- whose title he did not even know -- was now suddenly going to crush him. He kept asking if we could drive faster and whether we could honk the horn to make everyone get out of our way. Eventually I had to tell him that not only would we not get there on time, there would be no tickets waiting for us, and only if I could get in touch with the festival director would we even have any hope of getting in. I had the festival director's number by now, but closing the space in the amount of remaining time was quickly becoming a physical impossibility.

My second backup plan, one that was sure to satisfy him, still seemed only barely able to do so. My second backup was to take him back to that same video arcade where he'd won at Angry Birds. He reluctantly agreed that this was an acceptable plan. Though even after that, even after he knew we were no longer going to Ernest & Celestine, he asked how close we were to getting to the theater.

It's about a bear and a mouse, kid! It's got no guns or mutated reptiles! And it's not even drawn very well! 

An apple juice, a chocolate bar and a handful of video games later, he was fully happy and seemed to have forgotten the aborted plan. He played the Angry Birds game once again, did not win the 500 tickets, shrugged, and walked away.

I too was a little disappointed not to get to see Ernest & Celestine. Not only is it of presumably high quality, as a recent Oscar nominee, but it taught the important lesson of tolerance. My son's expressed some fears about people who are different from him, so this could have done the valuable work of helping assuage some of those fears. Theoretically.

Or he could have been bored to tears and made us leave after 20 minutes. There's that.

He didn't get that dose of tolerance, but at least he didn't replace it with a movie where enraged birds shoot themselves at pigs.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

No Audio Audient: The Lodger


This is the fifth in my 2016 series No Audio Audient, in which I'm catching up with classic silents I haven't seen.

If you watched Charlie Chaplin's The Kid expecting to come here and compare your thoughts with my thoughts on it -- because that's totally something you're doing -- you have been the victim of a programming change.

As part of one of my recent weekly trips to the library, I picked up Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger, recognizing it only as a Hitchcock movie I hadn't seen. A little closer look at the cover revealed that indeed, it was one of his silents -- none of which I had seen yet. Seemed like a great choice for May, especially given that two of my four choices thus far have already been comedies from silent greats (Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton).

I was a tad wary, though. The oldest Hitchcock film I'd seen previously was the original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which I found decidedly disappointing -- even without having yet seen Hitchcock's 1956 remake. I found Hitchcock's trademark faculties severely diminished in this earlier work, and part of me worried the same about a film made seven years earlier -- without even the benefit of sound.

How little did I realize how little Hitchcock needs sound.

The Lodger -- or as it sometimes goes by, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog -- had me in the palm of its hand from its first shot. Which is this:


That's the Hitchcock I know and love.

And what an arresting way to start a movie about a serial killer murdering a new blonde woman every Tuesday night. Hitchcock spends about the first five minutes of the film just establishing a sense of paranoia through images alone, with barely any title cards. Detectives encircling the latest body. Panicked bystanders descending deeper into fear. The flashing lights of a theater marquee, as the victim was one of the girls in a revue. Hitchcock does communicate some exposition during these five minutes, but it's largely through newspaper headlines and stories being dictated via teletype, the circumstances of the crime marching out ominously one letter at a time. Score is also instrumental in establishing this mood, though that would have been something Hitchcock had less (if any) control over, and may not have even been the score that was used at the time. I try to set aside score in my analysis of silent films, even though it can undeniably contribute to my experience, as it did here.

The story comes to be about a mysterious lodger staying in an extra room in the home of his kindly old landlords and their daughter -- who just so happens to fit the profile of the women this serial killer has been killing. Upon his first arrival on screen, the lodger (the creepy Ivor Lovello) fits the description witnesses have reported of the murderer -- the lower half of his face is shrouded by a scarf. He's also got a queer way about him and seems to recoil at the images of young blonde women on the walls of his room. Thinking him just eccentric, they don't make the connection with the story filling all the newspapers ... until a few strange occurrences makes it impossible to overlook.

If The Man Who Knew Too Much seemed flat by Hitchcock standards, The Lodger seems to embody what we think of as a Hitchcock movie almost perfectly. I wouldn't have guessed that he was already devising unconventional filming techniques and props by 1927, but clearly, he was. One of these is a see-through plexiglass floor, which takes the place of the natural floor for a couple shots. This allows the lodger's male landlord to "visualize" him pacing back and forth a floor above, a seeming indicator of his guilt (or at least an unsteady mind). What he's actually seeing is the chandelier shaking, but the plexiglass floor shows us what he's imagining. This type of trick with sets and props would come to be a Hitchcock trademark.

Another was just a shot that floored me. As the lodger is going out secretly late at night, we see him descend the spiral staircase from above. But we don't see his whole body. We only see his gloved hand gliding along the bannister, making all the turns in the stairs as it gets lower and lower toward the first floor. The effect was profound.

I was also surprised by how little this seemed to feature what I will call "silent film acting." By 1927 I suppose directors knew that actions didn't have to be broad and over-the-top to communicate meaning, but Hitchcock shows an even greater sense of subtlety than would come from the natural refining of filmmaking techniques over time. He's already a master of this craft, even in the film that would come later to be thought of as "the first Hitchcock film." (It was his eighth overall, though that also includes shorts and lost films.)

One thing I did find strange as I was watching it, that probably contributed to a slightly diminished appreciation of the film, is that it barreled past its projected running time. The movie was supposed to last 71 minutes, according to the DVD case, but as it ticked up into that range I could tell it was nowhere near resolution. I found a different running time of 80 minutes on the web, but that minute mark came and went as well without a resolution. It finally wrapped up around 94 minutes -- which was not a running time I could find listed anywhere on the web. (And in yet a fourth different running time, IMDB lists it as 68 minutes.) I didn't get the sense of there being any filler footage, and I couldn't imagine what might be missing from shorter versions of the film. The only reason this bothered me was because I was trying to watch the movie during a set window of time, and the more it ran over the budgeted time, the more it threatened other things I had to do that day. Which made me wish I just hadn't known the running time at all, so I wouldn't have spent the last 20 minutes feeling impatient.

So The Lodger didn't only jump easily into the upper half of the Hitchcock films I've seen, but it also had clear influences on some of the other greats from this time period. The movie it reminded me of most was Fritz Lang's M, which wouldn't come along until 1931 and was clearly inspired by The Lodger. That's not to say The Lodger is better than M, because I don't think it is. But M might not exist, or exist exactly as we know it, without it.

Okay! Barring another unforeseen library rental, The Kid will indeed make its way onto the docket for June.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Selective animal harming


I stayed until the end of the credits of Green Room Thursday night, long enough to see this message:

"The American Humane Society monitored the treatment of animals in some scenes. No animals were harmed during those scenes."

I then expected a follow-up message:

"But in the scenes where the Human Society was not present, a horse was strangled, a frog was stepped on, a llama was kicked in the balls and a daddy long legs was electrocuted."

I imagine the precise parsing of the legalese is important in the credits of a film. I think what the above message is really saying is "Since the American Humane Society was present for only some of the filming, they can only certify that animals were not harmed during the scenes for which they were present." But it's certainly easy (and funny) to imagine the inverse.

It's hard to believe that no human beings were harmed during the making of Green Room. It's a pretty intense movie.

Friday, May 13, 2016

HRAFF: Flocking


When choosing which sessions of the 2016 HRAFF festival -- which I helped curate -- I would like to actually attend, I focused mostly on films I hadn't already seen.

Oddly, especially for a festival in which I was one of the programmers, I haven't seen more than a third of the 30 films ultimately chosen. In fact, a better way to describe it would be that I've only seen just over half. Thirteen of the 30 films were unseen by me, which gives you some indication of exactly how many contenders we had.

So that left me no shortage of choices. And having become a bit warn out by all the documentaries I watched, I naturally gravitated toward one of the two narrative films I hadn't seen.

That was Beata Garleder's Flocking, which I watched on Wednesday night in what felt like ages after I attended opening night. In reality, it was six nights later. My HRAFF schedule gets a bit more packed from here on out, as I will see four more films between Sunday and closing night next Thursday.

I wish I could say it was a movie I would recommend that others should flock to.

It's not the subject matter that ended up turning me off. I knew it was about a town who turns against a high school girl after she accuses one of her classmates of raping her. No, it was the total lack of charisma of the actors that did it. And the total lack of surprises in the way the movie investigates victim blaming. I knew the people would be assholes, but I thought at least they would be assholes in interesting ways.

I think I was probably also comparing it to a similar film that I had championed that we didn't end up programming. I'm probably not supposed to say the title, but I will because it could help other people eventually get to watch it. (As opposed to me mentioning a rejected title in a catty light, which would have no positive byproducts for that film.) That film was/is called Three Windows a Hanging, and instead of being Scandinavian, it takes place in Kosovo. In that case, a woman is shunned by the others in her village, especially the men, when she tells an international journalist that she and other women in their village were raped during the Serbian conflict back in the late 1990s. Not only did that film have acting that was far superior to the performances in Flocking, but it's also shot and framed beautifully. If I'm going to struggle with the darkness of sexual violence, I at least want it to be aesthetically and dramatically pleasing.

So while Flocking wasn't a hit for me, it was nice to return to the festival after nearly a week without screenings.

And it was also nice that I was able to avoid making eye contact with the festival director on the way out, so I wouldn't have to give him my thoughts on the movie.