Sunday, October 2, 2022

My 1998 film rankings (in 1998)

This is the tenth in a 2022 monthly posting of the 12 year-end rankings I completed prior to starting this blog, on the occasion of my 25th anniversary of ranking movies. I'm posting them as a form of permanent backup, plus to do a little analysis of how my impression of the movies has changed since then. I'm going in reverse order and will end with 1996 in December. 

As many of the years around this time were, 1998 was a year of transition for me. I finished up at my weekly newspaper job in Rhode Island in late July, and immediately left on a road trip across the country with two friends, seeing baseball games in 14 major league baseball parks. (It was supposed to be 16 but we had to skip our games in Detroit and Pittsburgh for various logistical reasons.) This got me back in time to start at Columbia Journalism School in early September.

It was truly a chaotic period for me. I moved out of my Providence apartment on literally the day we were leaving on our trip, and since I'd left such a small window of time to do so, I ended up taking trips back and forth between Providence and my dad's house outside Boston (an hour's drive) overnight -- that many trips being required to get all my stuff situated in his garage for temporary, and in some cases long-term, storage. Even this was not enough, and on my final trip, I had all sorts of large objects strapped to my roof and my vision almost totally obstructed by the remaining objects stuffed inside my car, such that I could only see the driver's side rearview mirror and half of the front windshield -- meaning any time I had to change lanes to the right, it was basically conducted on blind hope. Only then did I finally throw a bunch of stuff in bags to leave on a trip that was lasting the better part of a month -- and oh by the way, not really having enough money in my bank account to make the whole trip.

When I did head off to New York upon my return, it was without knowing where I would live. Yes I managed to screw that up somehow. I was deep on a waitlist for university housing, so I paired up with another guy who was similarly up a creek without a paddle as we looked desperately for apartments for about three days. In the end I ended up getting his reluctant blessing to abandon him and take a studio apartment we'd looked at together that was too small for two people, but was only nine blocks from campus and basically my ideal scenario. I never did find out where he ended up living.

Ah the joys of being 24. 

It was also an important year in terms of film criticism, as 1998 was the year they took me up on my offer to review one film a week for the section that appeared in all four of the community newspapers in the East Bay of Rhode Island. I was the reporter for The Barrington Times, but this insert also appeared in the newspapers in Warren, Bristol and Sakonnet. There was a picture of my face next to the reviews and everything. I'd start spending a disproportionate amount of time on these reviews relative to my actual paying work (though I don't think the quality of that work suffered). This might have given me an early clue about what I really wanted to do -- and about how useful journalism school might be in that ambition. (Answer: not very.)

Here are my favorite to least favorite films of 1998, as I ranked them in early 1999:

1. Happiness
2. Waking Ned Devine
3. A Simple Plan
4. Rushmore
5. Saving Private Ryan
6. Primary Colors
7. Babe: Pig in the City
8. Elizabeth
9. The Mask of Zorro
10. The Truman Show
11. Antz
12. The Butcher Boy
13. Buffalo '66
14. Dirty Work
15. There's Something About Mary
16. Life is Beautiful
17. Paulie
18. Deep Impact
19. Out of Sight
20. Two Girls and a Guy
21. The Last Days of Disco
22. Shakespeare in Love
23. Dark City
24. The Big Lebowski
25. The Wedding Singer
26. A Perfect Murder
27. The Horse Whisperer
28. Slums of Beverly Hills
29. Pleasantville
30. The Spanish Prisoner
31. Celebrity
32. American History X
33. A Bug's Life
34. Patch Adams
35. Hush
36. Les Miserables
37. Lethal Weapon 4
38. Enemy of the State
39. Dead Man on Campus
40. The X-Files: Fight the Future
41. City of Angels
42. Blade
43. Wild Things
44. The Big Hit
45. Armageddon
46. The Man in the Iron Mask
47. Godzilla
48. Madeline
49. Zero Effect
50. Baseketball
51. The Thin Red Line
52. Can't Hardly Wait
53. Mercury Rising
54. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
55. The Waterboy
56. Hurlyburly
57. U.S. Marshals
58. Almost Heroes

And here is the order in which those movies rank out of 6113 movies currently on my Flickchart. Following the ranking is the percentage of the ranking out of 6113 and the number of slots they rose or fell on my Flickchart compared to the other movies from that year that I ranked at the time. A positive number indicates a comparative rise of that many slots, a negative number a fall.

1. Happiness (167, 97%) 0
2. Rushmore (170, 97%) 2
3. A Simple Plan (215, 96%) 0
4. Out of Sight (330, 95%) 15
5. Saving Private Ryan (349, 94%) 0
6. There's Something About Mary (384, 94%) 9
7. Babe: Pig in the City (454, 93%) 0
8. Waking Ned Devine (465, 92%) -6
9. Elizabeth (636, 90%) -1
10. Deep Impact (641, 90%) 8
11. Paulie (794, 87%) 6
12. Shakespeare in Love (804, 87%) 10
13. Primary Colors (808, 87%) -7
14. Antz (893, 85%) -3
15. The Mask of Zorro (921, 85%) -6
16. The Butcher Boy (922, 85%) -4
17. Life is Beautiful (1046, 83%) -1
18. The Truman Show (1071, 82%) -8
19. The Wedding Singer (1138, 81%) 6
20. Dark City (1186, 81%) 3
21. The Horse Whisperer (1353, 78%) 6
22. Two Girls and a Guy (1609, 74%) -2
23. Dirty Work (1650, 73%) -9
24. Celebrity (2087, 66%) 7
25. Buffalo '66 (2270, 63%) -12
26. The X-Files: Fight the Future (2435, 60%) 14
27. A Perfect Murder (2447, 60%) -1
28. The Last Days of Disco (2507, 59%) -7
29. The Big Lebowski (2535, 59%) -5
30. American History X (2609, 57%) 2
31. Slums of Beverly Hills (2707, 56%) -3
32. The Big Hit (3499, 43%) 12
33. Blade (3524, 42%) 9
34. A Bug's Life (3615, 41%) -1
35. Pleasantville (3684, 40%) -6
36. Les Miserables (3806, 38%) 0
37. The Spanish Prisoner (3807, 38%) -7
38. Hush (3919, 36%) -3
39. Wild Things (3959, 35%) 4
40. Enemy of the State (4051, 34%) -2
41. City of Angels (4167, 32%) 0
42. Dead Man on Campus (4278, 30%) -3
43. The Thin Red Line (4741, 22%) 8
44. Madeline (4759, 22%) 4
45. The Man in the Iron Mask (4894, 20%) 1
46. Lethal Weapon 4 (4957, 19%) -9
47. Zero Effect (4971, 19%) 2
48. Can't Hardly Wait (5005, 18%) 4
49. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (5040, 18%) 5
50. Godzilla (5142, 16%) -3
51. Armageddon (5217, 15%) -6
52. Patch Adams (5218, 15%) -18
53. Baseketball (5252, 14%) -3
54. Mercury Rising (5550, 9%) -1
55. U.S. Marshals (5713, 7%) 2
56. Hurlyburly (5784, 5%) 0
57. The Waterboy (5933, 3%) -2
58. Almost Heroes (6022, 1%) 0

The writing of this post uncovered something that hasn't happened in a while, which is a film missing from my Flickchart. For some reason I had not been ranking The Waterboy, so I just added it for the first time. Obviously it did not do very well.

Five best movies I've seen since closing the list (alphabetical): Another Day in Paradise, The Cruise, Gods and Monsters, He Got Game, Smoke Signals
Five worst movies I've seen since closing the list (alphabetical): The Hi-Lo Country, King Cobra, Small Soldiers, Woo, Your Friends & Neighbors
Biggest risers: Out of Sight (+15), The X-Files: Fight the Future (+14), The Big Hit (+12)
Biggest fallers: Patch Adams (-18), Buffalo '66 (-12), Dirty Work/Lethal Weapon 4 (-9)
Stayed the same: Happiness (1st), A Simple Plan (3rd), Saving Private Ryan (5th), Babe: Pig in the City (7th), Les Miserables (36th), City of Angels (41st), Hurlyburly (56th), Almost Heroes (58th)
Average percentage on Flickchart: 53.71% (3 of 10 so far)

This might be my lowest ranked top movie so far, as Happiness is only 167th on my Flickchart -- and I've got a rewatch scheduled for the next few weeks that will assess whether even that is too high. Overall though it is a strong year compared to the nine others I've looked at, with the third highest average percentage on Flickchart so far. 

The biggest riser, Out of Sight, has definitely grown in my estimation over the years. I definitely liked it at the time I saw it, but it may have struck me as a bit post-Tarantino or something, and a comedown from the films of his I had liked the most. Especially with more than a decade of glowing mentions on Filmspotting to increase its profile in my mind, as well as one very favorable rewatch, I have now launched it upward so I believe is actually my highest ranked Soderbergh film. (Yes, within the past few years it has surpassed Erin Brockovich at #481.)

The other big risers are movies I retroactively think must have been better than I actually thought they were at the time. The X-Files movie now gets lumped in with the show, as I wave a hand over the whole thing and call it superior entertainment -- even if the show, of which I watched probably half the episodes, was clearly far superior. As for The Big Hit, I now imagine it must have been a fun, pulpy, star-studded crime movie when in reality it was probably more miss than hit. Maybe I'll rewatch that one at some point.

It's hard to believe Patch Adams could have dropped 18 spots because I remember really disliking it at the time. I knew from trailers that it was going to be a treacly mess, and it was, but I suspect it ultimately ended up doing more for me than I thought it was going to, which is the explanation for its generous #34 ranking at the time. Over the years I've righted the narrative in my head about this movie -- or so I think I have, without the benefit of a rewatch -- as I now use the movie as a bit of a go-to example of a movie that tries too hard to please. 

The drop for Buffalo '66 is undoubtedly the result of the problematic nature of director-star Vincent Gallo after this movie, as he made the tediously indulgent The Brown Bunny, in which Chloe Sevigny famously gives him a blowjob on screen, one whose every detail you see. He became defined as an empty provocateur and enfant terrible in my head, and the quite good Buffalo '66 has suffered -- in part because in hindsight, I can see the future Brown Bunny Gallo in that movie. 

I probably overrated Dirty Work in 1998, but the fact that it is one of the biggest fallers now seems sad in the wake of Norm Macdonald's death. 

Okay only two of these left. It shouldn't take a math genius to figure out that 1997 is up next in November. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Netflix has taken over the train station near my office

When I got off the train this morning for work I noticed something different.

At first I thought it was some sort of new interior design choice. The metal slopes between the escalators had this color bar pattern against a black background, which I thought was a bit loud, but I shrugged and decided it was some person's idea of modern design.

Then I noticed that there was an N at the bottom, and that N looked sort of ... familiar.

It was only then that I looked up and noticed that the escalator walls were festooned with advertisements for new Netflix content.

I mean, totally chockablock. No room for any other advertising. Netflix decided it wanted to be the sole purveyor of sales pitches in the whole Parliament Station in downtown Melbourne. And possibly at other downtown stations as well.

I didn't start taking pictures early enough to show you the breadth of this, but the breadth was total. And I will say, in Netflix's defense, that I did become aware of some projects I hadn't known about -- even if they already do a pretty good job advertising future content on the site.

I did start taking pictures by the time I got to the top of the two sets of escalators, at the giant square emblem you see above.

As I continued down the hallway toward the exit to the open air, the posters continued, as well as more banners on the floor, as you see here:

It's sort of the equivalent of when a website is absolutely crippled by the wall-to-wall advertising for a particular company, so much so that it actually shrinks the available real estate for the site's normal content. Which, unfortunately for that blitzkrieg approach, is never a good thing.

And so I say that the wholesale takeover of Parliament Station by Netflix is not a good thing either. I'll be curious to see how long it lasts. 

If it lasts for only a short time, then it might be defensible as a short-term promotional stunt in association with some specific Netflix milestone or important date. Then again, if that were the case, it would seem that one particular program would be the focus, not a kaleidoscope of new Netflix content. Also that would be a pretty expensive promotional stunt.

Plus if it does go down after only a week, most of us won't assume it's because the window of time of the promotional stunt is over. Most of us would assume it was Netflix retracting in defeat after a resounding rejection of its campaign. 

Me, I'm pretty loyal to Netflix, generally speaking, so this does not impact me one way or another. If I need something new to review for ReelGood -- as I did yesterday when I reviewed Lou -- I'll still look to see what new film Netflix has before I'll look at any of my other streamers. It's still the granddaddy.

But too much more of this mentality will convince me that they are indeed in trouble, that they are indeed flailing around, making desperate attempts to retain the market share that they once enjoyed. And it will start to seem unseemly. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The strangest best original screenplay nomination

This post also could have been entitled "I finally saw: A Hard Day's Night."

Despite having a high amount of affection for the Beatles that came on in my twenties -- later than it did for most people -- this delightful lark of a film had escaped me until this point. I'd had it lined up as a future watch on Kanopy for years, but, despite its short running time, it never came up any time I lurked around the free streaming site looking for that night's viewing.

The "right occasion" finally came on Sunday afternoon. Our projector was still set up from the night before, when the Australian film Paper Planes was watched as a family, then The Cell was watched decidedly not as a family. So I decided to use my Sunday afternoon downtime to watch something quick before I went off to the store prior to our dinner. (I ended up watching two more movies there, one of which was Luck, which I wrote about yesterday.)

I enjoyed the heck out of the movie. There's something about it that feels sort of proto Monty Python. British humor and absurdism is something that falls right in my wheelhouse, and A Hard Day's Night had it in spades. 

It's not the kind of movie you have to watch super closely, I would argue. I got the sense early on that the actual plot was not going to matter too much, plus there's the fact that it is broken up here and there by songs. You're watching it to see four young men who were about to be kings of the world, if they were not already, in the last moments of their innocence before life started to become significantly more complicated for them. They're enjoying each others' company and having a blast. We have a blast vicariously.

Since I had determined it did not require my undivided attention, I was noodling around a bit on the internet -- at least on an errand that was directly related to this movie -- and I discovered that it was nominated for two Oscars, including for its original screenplay by Alun Owen.

Huh?

This is a series of loosely connected episodes if ever there was one. You can diagram a plot from it, to be sure, but the plot can be summarized as follows: "Thirty-six hours in the life of the Beatles as they prepare for a television appearance." And of course this is not the real Beatles, even though the band members are all playing themselves -- it's a loosely fictionalized version of them, an amplified version of their real character traits, run through silly scenarios that function as a commentary on fame and the place they occupied on the world stage. 

I really liked this movie -- four stars on Letterboxd -- but an example of a tidy or even wholly successful screenplay it is not. 

Oh it's not a bad screenplay. It's funny, it produces numerous humorous scenarios and it gets at something essential about the Beatles. A bad version of the script would probably put a lot of lines in their mouths that they would never say, not even a fictionalized version of them. 

I just can't square it, though, as realistic competition for the other four nominees that year: 

Um, yeah, so those options are ... let's see ...

Father Goose (winner)
One Potato, Two Potato
The Organizer
That Man from Rio

Okay so I have literally never heard of the other four nominees. The nomination for A Hard Day's Night is starting to make a bit more sense now.

Adapted screenplays must have been far more common back then. In fact, original screenplay did not even exist as a category until 1940, whereas adapted screenplay goes back to the origins of the award. 

The 1964 adapted screenplay nominees had all the heavy hitters:

Becket (winner)
Dr. Strangelove 
Mary Poppins
My Fair Lady
Zorba the Greek

It's interesting to consider how few films back then were conceived of for the screen only. Film clearly started as a medium intended to enliven famous books or plays, not to depict ideas hatched purely for the form. That said, in only its second year as an award, the best original screenplay Oscar went to Citizen Kane, so it's not only a weird selection of lesser films that were first envisioned for the screen. Nineteen sixty-four seems to be a bit of an odd duck -- or maybe an odd goose -- as 8 1/2 was nominated for the award the year before that and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg the year after. Who knows, maybe Father GooseOne Potato, Two Potato, The Organizer and That Man from Rio are all great. 

But back to A Hard Day's Night. I hadn't realized how much praise had been heaped on it in general. Time magazine has listed it as one of the hundred greatest films of all time and The British Film Institute listed it as the 88th best British film of the 20th century. (That second bit of praise seems a bit more reasonable.)

Me, I knew I was in for a good time as soon as we first met Paul McCartney's fictitious grandfather, probably the silliest character in this whole silly romp. He's played by an actor named Wilfrid Brambell, and I had a hard time believing the guy was only 52 years old when he played this role -- not only because that makes him only 30 years older than McCartney himself, but because I'll be 52 in three years and I won't look nearly as gaunt and withered, with as bad teeth, as this guy.

Then again, I suppose bad teeth are even more British than Monty Python. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

It's Pixar, right down to the Ratzenberger

Mild spoilers for Luck to follow.

Apple knows what makes a great Pixar movie, and they're not afraid to use it.

The new movie Luck -- well it's been out for about seven weeks -- has the Pixar formula down to a T. As it was going, I just noticed ever more similarities to the premiere animation studio of our age.

It takes place mostly in a land called Luck, which is populated by all sorts of creatures who are considered to bring luck in the human world: leprechauns, rabbits, pigs, dragons. The characters are defined by how easily everything comes for them, such as blindly stepping off a platform and knowing that there will be a floating vehicle there to catch them, or tossing a whole order of lattes to awaiting co-workers and being certain that each will land in the hand of the recipient, possibly after a circuitous journey, without spilling a drop.

Of course the land of Luck is divided into two parts -- the upper part, which is the home to only good luck, and the lower part, which hosts and creates all the human world's bad luck. (If you aren't getting vibes of Monsters Inc., Inside Out and Soul by now, you should be.) The occupants of bad luck are those that are typically talismans in our world -- you know, trolls and that sort. They aren't evil, they're just really, really unlucky. The black cat you see in that poster is an inhabitant of the Good Luck portion, but [SPOILER] it is ultimately revealed that he's a refuge from Bad Luck -- as one might expect given the color of his coat.

Since we're pretty close to a full synopsis here, I should say that the main character, Sam (Eva Noblezada), is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of an orphanage -- a very nice orphanage in this case. She has always had terrible luck. As just one small example, a slice of toast with jam on it will ALWAYS slip out of her fingers and it will ALWAYS land jam side down. She finds a lucky penny left behind by the cat -- a Scot named Bob, voiced by Simon Pegg -- on its travels into our world, and her luck changes. She hopes to give the lucky penny to a young girl at the orphanage who is still trying to find her "forever home" and has her first weekend visit with a family on the schedule.

The presenting of a complicated infrastructure to explain an everyday aspect of our world is a consummate Pixar trick, and luck makes for an excellent candidate for such treatment. The same sort of thought that Pixar would put into the details has been applied here. For example, at one point, Sam must make her way through a series of rooms devoted to the different sorts of bad luck related to dog poop, such as merely "Stepped In It" all the way to "Tracked It Into the House."

But I probably wouldn't be writing this post if the similarities stopped there. 

Focusing more in on Inside Out, the conclusion of Luck -- I've already given you several SPOILER warnings -- revolves around the realization that good luck and bad luck are necessarily intertwined, and you can't have one without the other. Reminiscent of a little epiphany involving the characters of Joy and Sadness from Inside Out, anyone?

There's even a list of the production babies in the end credits. They may do that in every animated movie now, but I think of it as having originated with Pixar.

But I still probably wouldn't be writing this post if a character did not come along in the second half of the movie who made the resemblance to Pixar absolutely impossible to ignore.

Yes, old Pixar voice collaborator John Ratzenberger -- Cliff from Cheers -- was specifically hired for this movie to remind us of Pixar. He plays a root -- I guess roots are unlucky -- who is a bartender in Bad Luck. 

Ratzenberger has appeared in, by my count, 22 Pixar films, including all three so far mentioned in this post -- which almost makes you wonder what went wrong in the ones where he didn't appear. (Too problematic for him to do an Italian accent in Luca?) However, he's appeared in only three animated films that weren't directly Pixar films, though two of them -- Planes and its sequel -- were both kind of spinoffs of Cars. But the only totally non-Pixar oriented movie I see on his resume on IMDB is something called Pup Star: World Tour, where he voices a character named Grampa Growl. (He has also provided his voice in animated TV shows.)

And now Luck.

Now obviously this is not an era where actors sign exclusivity agreements with studios as they did back in the day, but if there is any one actor who seems to be the "property" of a particular studio nowadays, it's John Ratzenberger with Pixar. If you are poaching him to do a similar thing in your movie, everyone is going to notice. (But if you are, do it quickly -- Ratzenberger is 75 now and won't be around forever.) 

In fact, I suspect the only reason rival studios haven't hired him is that they've said "That's Pixar's thing. We have our pride." Apparently, Apple does not have any such qualms.

The good news for Apple and for Luck? Pixar does things exceptionally well, and the dropoff in quality here is not big at all. Yes, you can tell the animation is not quite as good -- I was especially distracted by this at the start of the film when I noticed that the characters' mouths did not move with quite the grace that a Pixar mouth would move. To be honest, though, as I got more into the story I noticed this less, and it's not a problem at all with the non-human characters.

In short: Imitate Pixar all you want if it's going to give me a delightful little family movie like Luck

It'll at least tide us over until Pixar goes back to this well in 2023 with Elemental, a film about the coexistence of land, fire, water and air elements. 

Ratzenberger voices "water" I believe. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The mis-crediting of Tarsem Singh

Given how frequently I feel I watch The Cell, it was a real surprise that last night's viewing was my first in almost five years. My last Cell viewing, according to my meticulously kept records, was October 1, 2017. Which means that when I asked myself it it was time for another Cell viewing last night, the answer was certainly "yes," given that the previous four were in much closer succession (2010, 2013, 2014 and then of course 2017). 

For once I'm not going to write a post that gives you some new Cell takeaways. Instead, I'll write about something extra-textual that's in conversation with something else I wrote a few days ago.

On Thursday I sort of cheekily gave one possible reason for the critical hatred of Catwoman: the single-name moniker of its director, Pitof. In making this specious point, I listed other single-name monikers that had raised ire among cinephiles, like McG and Tarsem.

Interestingly, Tarsem Singh -- the director of The Cell -- is not actually credited as "Tarsem" in The Cell

I'm having trouble recreating the narrative of how I came to think of him as Tarsem, then, given that The Cell was easily the first time I became aware of him. I say "easily" because his follow-up, The Fall, didn't come for another six years, meaning that even if I hadn't seen The Cell in the theater (which I did), it would have taken not seeing it for another six years to have possibly heard of him first through The Fall.

Now, according to IMDB, he is credited as just "Tarsem" on The Fall. But the knowledge of his unique crediting was with me long before then. (And given that some people hold The Fall a lot more dear than they hold The Cell -- in fact, some people hate The Cell -- I'm thinking I really need to prioritize another Fall viewing to remind myself why it never really struck a chord with me.)

So in continuing to scan those IMDB credits, I'm deciding the conversation about his proclivity to credit himself with just his first name must have dated back to his earlier work, when he was making music videos. His 1990 video for En Vogue's "Hold On" lists him as being credited as just Tarsem, though that's the only one of five videos listed (which include R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion") where it says "as Tarsem." We can't assume the crediting on IMDB is 100% accurate, but it's all we have to go on unless we do a deeper dive, and that's not in the cards for me on this Sunday morning.

So maybe I was reading articles about The Cell at the time, and the writer knew of his earlier crediting and made some snide remark about it. Or, maybe some of the 2000 advertising for the movie said it was from "Tarsem," but when it came to the actual movie he was credited with both his first and last name. 

The other thing the IMDB credits showed me is that these are not the only two ways Singh has referred to himself in his credits. In fact, considering that he has only made five features, the means of crediting him that is tied for the most common is as Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, which is how (according to IMDB) he was credited on Immortals (2011) and Mirror Mirror (2012). Then for Self/less (2015) it was back to "Tarsem Singh." 

Yes, what I'm saying is that "Tarsem" is actually the least likely way for him to have been credited, a lark he tried for one movie that persists in our collective memory of his identity as an artist. 

Maybe his sixth feature will be the tiebreaker. IMDB lists something called Nanda Devi in pre-production, which I will welcome even if none of his last four features had anything like the impact on me that his first did. But I don't even see any actors attached so it may be a while. 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Movies used to just end

Warning: The following post contains spoilers about Fear, which has been out for 26 years now, so I doubt it was just sitting there as the next movie you were waiting to watch anyway, and by the time you get to the end of this spoiler warning you will probably be ready to say TL; DR and just move on to the next thing on your reading list.

A common scene in a movie about movies involves some Hollywood type finishing his (it's disproportionately a him) pitch about a movie with some variation on the following: "... villain falls out the window and lands on something pointy. Roll credits."

The scene is meant to indicate this is all some kind of formula we're familiar with, and you can really just plug any specific story into the formula. Once you've reached the end of it, "roll credits" indicates that there's no more narrative fuss and muss and people are starting to turn on their phones and file out of the theater. 

It seems like an exaggeration, especially by today's standards (or the standards of any period of time when the audience would immediately turn on a phone after the movie ended), but in the 1990s it was really a thing. Once the climax of the story, especially a thriller, had been reached, there was no more story to tell and the movie just ended.

I went into Friday night knowing I planned to watch something I had seen previously, but would let one of the streamers determine what. I'd gone through several rows of Netflix's offerings and was considering jumping over to Amazon or Stan, when there it was: one of Mark Wahlberg's first films, Fear, which also helped launch Reese Witherspoon, and was a guilty pleasure of mine back at the time. It was also the film that confirmed for me that James Foley had directed another good film beyond Glengarry Glen Ross. (Looking up his credits just now, I was surprised to see that he had directed the final two Fifty Shades movies, which I haven't seen. But those likely do not change my impression of his overall career. Also just learned: He directed like ten Madonna videos.)

I was wary of the film's potential to hold up in any way at all, but as it turned out, I think this is actually the most I have ever enjoyed Fear, in three and possibly four total viewings (but none in at least two decades). Its economy felt truly admirable. Coming in at only 97 minutes, it reminded me of how tight many of these films were back in the day -- another couple examples being the early genre films of Curtis Hanson, such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild.

Then, when Wahlberg does indeed get thrown out a window at the end -- landing on hard, flat rock rather than something pointy -- the credits do in fact roll. 

There's about a minute of screen time left for the shaken and relieved family to hug in the bedroom of Witherspoon's Nicole, which has just been the location of the final showdown between Wahlberg's David and Nicole's father Steve (William Peterson), but no one even says a word. And then the credits begin rolling as a helicopter shot slowly pulls out from the coastal Seattle house, showing a few ambulances and stretchers summoned to haul away the dead. (It was actually shot in British Columbia.)

Fear is not the first film I've recently revisited where I noticed this sort of ending, which some would call abrupt, but I would call economical. As is usually the case on this blog, it's just the one that prompted me to actually write the post.

But the abruptness -- which I'd be lying if I did not acknowledge in some small measure -- was certainly what's led to why we don't see this sort of ending anymore. Plus today's screenwriters seem a lot more concerned about making sure we know everyone turns out alright.

If Fear were made today, instead of that helicopter shot out at the end, we'd get a title card that said "SIX MONTHS LATER." We'd see this family, who had been pushed to all sorts of anger and internal recriminations by the events of this story, together on a yacht or something, looking all smiles and perfectly unified, quite clearly free from any future danger.

Today, screenwriters can't seem to trust us to imagine the happy ending they believe will befall these characters. It's not enough to show everyone hugging, relieved, wordlessly forgiving each other their former trespasses, past the worst of it. Today, we need to know it really did get a lot better after that. 

But in reality, would it?

This family has been through a major trauma. The immediate family -- which also includes Nicole's stepmother Laura (Amy Brenneman) and her son Toby (Christopher Gray) -- have gotten through it with their lives, as has Nicole's trainwreck best friend, Margo (Alyssa Milano). The family dog was not so lucky, but that's par for the course in this sort of film.

But Nicole's and Margo's other best friend, Gary (Todd Coldecott), had his neck snapped by the vengeful David, who didn't like that Gary stood up to him in the high school lunch room. (This after David had repeatedly kicked him in the stomach in a previous scene.)

What's more, their house has sustained all sorts of damage, with windows broken and doors axed open. And some of the degenerates who tried to invade their home alongside David fled the scene. Who knows if they're inclined to circle back and murder Nicole's family while they sleep.

So in short: This family probably won't be riding carefree on a yacht six months from now.

There'll be grief counseling. There'll be post traumatic stress. Everyone in that family will jump at every loud noise for the next five years. Steve will remember the one time he allowed a predator to almost steal his daughter and will heavily scrutinize everyone Nicole ever dates again. For her own part, Nicole will think that any guy who shows interest in her might be considering sexually assaulting her. (David gropes Nicole in a very unsettling scene in a women's bathroom.) And that younger brother Toby, who might be about 12? He'll have to deal with having run over one of these degenerates with the family car, which, while instrumental in helping save them -- Toby is really the reason any of them made it out of it -- is still something that would heavily traumatize a young boy. 

Plus life just isn't like that. This sort of trauma could bring the family together, sure. But more likely the problems they had previously -- Laura was rolling her eyes at Steve's prioritizing of his work over his family even before David came on the scene -- will still be there.

What it does when the credits just roll is say "The immediate danger is over. Now all that remains is the long-term danger of the complications of real life." And that long-term danger is one we all live with.

A few other thoughts on nuances about Fear that I really enjoyed:

1) Amy Brenneman might be the secret MVP of this movie. She has three great moments and line readings that I wanted to draw attention to. 

The first is when Nicole hasn't come back by her curfew and both Laura and Steve have fallen asleep, she in her clothes on the bed, he in his clothes on the couch in their bedroom, cradling the phone in his arms. When he starts awake in the morning and gets up off the couch, Brenneman opens her eyes and says "What" instinctively -- like she had just closed her eyes for a moment but was still fully involved in the task of waiting on Nicole to return. It's just nicely done.

When the home invaders have hauled her husband off upstairs and left her handcuffed on the couch downstairs, she has this thousand-yard stare of defeat that just perfectly encapsulates the impotency of her situation. 

Finally there's the moment when a crying Margo shows up at their door, just before the home invaders arrive. Laura doesn't know that Margo has arrived with the news that Gary has been found dead, so her first analysis is that the messy 16-year-old she sees before her is just crying because she's been a shit friend to Nicole, having slept with David (although we do believe that David forced her). Laura surely knows some of this and she greets her with "Oh Margo." The tone is perfect -- it suggests she's saying "I know that you are a shit friend and a mess, and that you hurt my stepdaughter, but in this moment I just have sympathy for the fact that you are an emotionally volatile young girl and that you have recognized your own shittiness."

2) It's really a shame Wahlberg has not pursued villainous roles more often. He may have done one or two more, I can't really remember, but he is so damn sinister in this film that it really seems like a missed opportunity for his career. The scene where he pounds his own chest after an intense interaction with Steve, knowing he is planning to make it look to Nicole like Steve left him with bruises, is just psychopathy incarnate. It's a scene my friends and I used to perform for each other for a laugh (though I don't think we ever succeeded at giving ourselves bruises).

3) This was my first introduction to William Peterson, several years before he starred in CSI, and it always struck me what a good performance he gives as a father struggling with the usual challenges of parenting as well as the unusual challenges of a boy -- a man, really -- who has has designs on his daughter. Actually those challenges are also pretty normal, but they quickly cross over into the abnormal and put him in the role of both hunter and hunted. Don't forget that he goes to David's house and trashes it. He's far from perfect. There's a moment at the end where one of David's fellow dirtbags says, as he's trying to use a log to smash open the door of the house, "An eye for an eye, you fuck up my house, I fuck up yours." Realizing what this comment means, Laura looks at him and says "David?" He acknowledges his guilt of the charge through this little look he gives, which is all any of them has time for as they prepare for the next onslaught.

4) The frankness of the sexuality in this movie was refreshing, given where we've come since. I think most if not all similar movies in 2022 would not have Nicole as being sexually active at only age 16. This film does not demonize her for it, though of course Steve is none too happy about it. The scene where David has his hand up Nicole's short skirt -- she wears nothing but short skirts in this movie -- on the rollercoaster is played as downright romantic, as I don't think we know yet that David is bad news, and The Sundays' cover of the Stones' "Wild Horses" makes that sequence downright dreamy. 

5) Since I've mentioned all the other primary actors it's only fair to talk about Witherspoon. She really brings it here. My favorite of a number of great moments is when Steve and Laura are departing for a weekend to Vancouver, leaving Nicole in charge of Toby with strict orders not to allow anyone in the house except her and Toby. Which, Nicole being 16, is the exact opposite of what she plans to do -- she calls David that very night and even gives him the security code to her house. Anyway, as David and Laura are getting in the car preparing to leave, Nicole is already annoyed at her father for something -- another very teenager thing. When Steve tries to leave on a nice note, asking her to give him a smile, Witherspoon produces this delightfully comedic parody of a big smile. It made me laugh out loud.

Okay, I think that's enough on Fear. This economical movie inspired me not to be very economical in my own word count. But now, I'll honor it by rolling the credits.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

I finally saw: Catwoman

Yesterday I wrote about classic movies that everybody should have seen by now. Then I went to watch a terrible movie that everyone should have seen -- at least if you are a cinematic masochist who likes witnessing trainwrecks.

Or so I thought Catwoman would be. It was not.

I didn't exactly like the movie -- 2.5 stars on Letterboxd was the highest I would go -- but neither did I find it the laughingstock it was supposed to have been, the kind of movie I knew I would eventually watch just to howl in disbelief at its miscalculations.

I actually did laugh at the movie a couple times. There are some clumsy bits. But really, it's not so terrible at all. There are one or two goofy moments with Halle Berry's performance, but overall I think she's fine. There are a few times when the editing is a little bit off. Some of the visual effects don't look great, but then again some of them do. I actually think the way they have Berry leaping around like a cat is mostly pretty effective.

So now I am trying to think why critics at the time thought it was so awful, or whether it was just that audiences didn't go, which drove the narrative that it was bad. I'm not going to do a deep dive into the 2004 Catwoman reviews to answer my question. Rather, I will put forward some theories of what it was that might have turned a fickle critic against it, leading audiences to follow suit and similarly shun it.

1) It was directed by a man named Pitof. Some people get instantly annoyed when they see that a director has chosen a nickname or a pseudonym as the way they are professionally credited, such as McG or Tarsem. Then again, I haven't met anyone who is annoyed by the name Kogonada, so I don't know. (Pitof was born Jean-Christophe Comar, and I guess Pitof is a nickname.) Well, any Pitof haters got their wish as he never got to direct another feature film after this one flopped.

2) There's a really tiresome opening credits sequence that lasts for seemingly five minutes, which takes place over ancient Egyptian depictions of cats, other cats throughout history, newspaper headlines in which cats appear, and then, comically, what also appears to be pictures of modern-day housecats. The credits are not fatal to the success of the film, but it's conceivable they put some critics in a bad mood from which they never recovered. In any case, I am reminded why most superhero films don't have opening credits any more, just the title and the name of the production companies.

3) As I said, there are a few times I found the editing off a bit. The editing is by Sylvie Landra, who worked on some of Luc Besson's earliest films, which I believe were fine in terms of their editing. Maybe Pitof steered her in the wrong direction. Again, though, I only really noticed this in the opening 15 minutes of the movie, when I still thought it was going to be a disaster.

4) It's the first -- and so far last -- on-screen depiction of the character that does not involve Batman or appear to take place in Gotham City. This is Patience Phillips, not Selena Kyle, and I just confirmed on Wikipedia that the story they've chosen does not appear to spring from the comics in any specific way. The movie was originally envisioned as more directly related to the Catwoman we had already met in Batman Returns, with both Tim Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer involved, but that idea from the mid-90s morphed into this one from 2004. Clearly the final film did not benefit from the delay.

5) Racism, maybe? Although Halle Berry has had crossover appeal the entire time she's been famous -- in other words, her race never prevented people from all quarters declaring how beautiful she was and ranking her alongside more traditionally praised white beauties -- you can't discount the idea that some critics might have thought this was some early incarnation of woke culture and they didn't like it. 

6) The scene where a digital cat breathes upon Patience's dead body, thereby giving her the powers of Catwoman, is, indeed, downright laughable.

I had a peek on Wikipedia at a sampling of the critical response at the time, and Roger Ebert at least talked about the character's lack of strength and agency -- I'm not sure I agree with that -- as well as the way they accentuate Berry's appearance and sexuality through the way she's shot and costumed. I guess I have to agree with the second one. Setting aside all my own woke credentials for a moment, this part didn't bother me because I really enjoyed looking at her. She has kind of the most perfectly designed face and cheekbones I've ever seen.

Although Catwoman is not necessarily a movie anyone should be "proud of," it's not nearly the misfire I expected it to be, and I'm wondering if those involved with it got on board as quickly as they could with the critical disdain for it, in order to be on the right side of history as soon as they could. Berry herself described it, only semi-sarcastically, as a "piece of shit, fucking godawful movie." I wonder if she really felt that way or just wanted to wrest control of the narrative surrounding it as decisively as she could.

As soon as I started to realize I didn't hate Catwoman, I of course interrogated that feeling and tried to see what was wrong with me that I couldn't summon the 2004 critics' and audiences' extreme dislike. And my brain went to a moment on a podcast that I listened to sometime within the past year -- presumably a discussion of The Batman -- where some critic came tepidly to the film's defense. I can't remember exactly what he said, but it was something to the effect of Catwoman being "misunderstood" at the time. That was probably as close as he could come to admitting a slight affection for it, without his own critical credibility suffering. 

Interestingly, I'm pretty sure this critic was Black.

And maybe that's the cruelest thing about the resounding rejection of Catwoman in 2004: It was one of the first superhero movies where a person of color was permitted to occupy the starring role. Looking back from where we find ourselves in 2022, the glee critics had in trashing the movie seems problematic. Even if many of them appeared to have praised Berry herself, that might have only been an attempt to avoid looking problematic, something that would have already been possible in 2004, if obviously not to the same extent as today.

Interestingly, I think if Catwoman were released in 2022 -- some of the visual effects still look pretty good -- it would receive a far different reception. It might still not be hailed as a great movie -- it isn't a great movie -- but I think we would be more careful in how we discussed it, and I think some of the things the film was trying to do would now be a bit more heartily embraced. Now granted, some of those things were themselves problematic, like Berry's skin-tight outfits. But maybe some of its gestures toward representation were, indeed, keenly considered and successfully realized. You can't say Catwoman was ahead of its time, but maybe you can say we as a society were behind the times back then.

I definitely watched it because I wanted a laugh. But I have to be honest when I say that the film didn't inspire the guffaws that I wanted, and by the time I got to the end of it, I wished I hadn't wanted them in the first place. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A cultural touchstone and cinematic rite of passage has gone by the wayside

There are obviously seminal films that the passing of generations can erase from the list of must-see movies, or more to the point, movies people don't need to "must see" because they've already seen them.

I didn't think The Wizard of Oz was one of them.

Yet last night when I was out for drinks with some past and present writers for my website, I discovered that two of the three of them had not seen The Wizard of Oz. Actually, the third might not have seen it either, but he was not present when the subject came up. I'm pretty sure at least he would have made the time.

These guys are not as much younger than me as you might think, either. One of them is only just 30, but another is turning 37 next week -- only 12 years younger than me. 

The weird thing is that they took a certain pride in not having seen it, doing a little elbow bump to congratulate themselves.

I won't revoke your cinephile card for any movie you haven't seen, but there are certain blind spots that just seem improbable if not impossible. Didn't they have The Wizard of Oz on TV once a year like we did in America, where everyone set aside whatever they were doing -- it being one of only three channels they could watch -- whenever that occurred?

Oh no, they didn't. See, these guys are enough younger than me that they don't remember a time without cable. Heck, one of these guys was born in the 1990s. He probably doesn't remember a time without internet. 

Plus, they explained to me, The Wizard of Oz held no such similar stature in Australia to the stature it held in the U.S. I hardly think that's the case, but it's certainly possible that the networks here did not have a deal to show it annually on television, before people even had VCRs and you could rent it at your local video store.

It took being a captive audience, with no other choices, to make The Wizard of Oz such a familiar text for those in my generation -- those Americans in my generation, I should say. If this was one of a hundred movies they showed on TV at only a set time each year, maybe we wouldn't have all tuned in, but it was a special night you would circle in the TV Guide whenever it came up.

I mean, there were other movies that got shown regularly on TV. It's a Wonderful Life would have been one, but curiously, it took me until I was an adult to see that one. So we all have our blind spots and we should not gasp in surprise at anyone else's. I still haven't seen the original King Kong, which I loosely consider the strangest movie for a person in my position with my proclivities not to have seen. 

But I do think it would behoove a cinephile to at some point make a specific decision to watch The Wizard of Oz, just to fully get the references to it in the culture, just to see what all the fuss is about. Because I'm a cinephile who has grand delusions of one day being a completist -- that is, seeing all the movies that have ever been made -- I'm sure not to let a movie of the stature of Wizard of Oz slip by me. Of course I will never be able to do that, but the desire reflects an interest on my part to be conversant with as much of the cinematic landscape as it is possible for one person to be. Not knowing The Wizard of Oz would feel like quite the deficit in that ambition.

Of course, not all cinephiles are created the same way. Some want to spend their time on movies they have already decided speak to a specific aesthetic preference they have, or will in some way challenge what movies can do. They can take one look at Wizard of Oz and know that it probably doesn't scratch either of those itches.

Neither can I imagine, though, a cinephile who just waves his or her hand at the whole idea of The Wizard of Oz, like it can't possibly be worth watching. I can maybe understand not getting to it yet -- 30 is still young -- but through their elbow bumps, they confirmed they had specifically avoided it, kind of like they were trolling someone who might at some future date ask them the very question I asked them last night.

They are probably no more embarrassed about not seeing The Wizard of Oz than I am embarrassed about only seeing Gladiator the one time. Later in that conversation they expressed shock that I had only watched the 2000 best picture winner once, perhaps even questioning how that was possible. One of these guys is working on a shot-by-shot remake of Jurassic Park, another film I have only seen once all the way through.

They're just young, and I'm just old.

We may be having a gathering in December at the home of one of the guys, who has moved about an hour outside town. If we do, we'll have some drinks Friday night and then watch movies on Saturday to recover from our hangovers. The idea is to each bring one film the others have not seen to contribute to that little Hangover Film Festival.

If not for the fact that the third younger guy -- who is between the other two in age -- has probably already seen it, I'd be inclined to spring The Wizard of Oz on them. If they aren't going to educate themselves, I can certainly do it for them.

The idea, though, is to introduce people not only to something they've never seen, but maybe something they've never even heard of. Forcing them to watch a movie they've already decided not to watch themselves is not in the spirit of the day, nor is it likely to have the result I want. You don't get that many opportunities to force a recommendation on someone where they are pretty much compelled to watch it right then and there, and not delay their own viewing indefinitely. Better make it count and try to hit a home run.

Rest assured, though, that I will be figuring out a way to get them to watch The Wizard of Oz at some point in the future.

They may not like it, but at least now they'll know what everyone is talking about. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

99 cents: Too much for a movie I've never heard of

It used to be that I would check iTunes every single week to see what movie they were renting for 99 cents. I'd get so impatient for the week's new movie to be revealed that I'd get actively frustrated if it was already Monday in America and there was no new title.

It was a good way for me to clean up movies that I'd meant to see earlier in the year, but never gotten around to. It felt like a cinephile life hack. These movies would ordinarily rent for around $4.99, but on these special weeks of the year, I could knock them out for $4 less than that.

Over time, I adjusted a bit so that even if I hadn't heard of the movie in question, I'd rent it as long as I recognized some of the stars or the director. I figured, also a good way to learn about movies that hadn't been on my radar, but maybe should have been.

That's changed.

I came to this realization last night while watching On the Count of Three, a movie starring Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael, and directed by Carmichael. I know Abbott's work, of course, and Carmichael's was a face I recognized. (As it turns out, it's produced by none other than legendary TV producer Tom Werner, who I've actually met, though this was only something I discovered in the end credits and not a factor in my purchase.)

The movie was okay. Actually, I liked it less than okay, but even sort of okay was a good place for it to have reached after I started out hating it. It redeemed itself in the second half, a bit. And there are some big name actors who each have one scene, most notably Tiffany Haddish, but also JB Smoove and Henry Winkler.

But there is no doubt that I did not need to see this movie, and that 99 cents no longer seems like a bargain.

It is reasonable to make the argument that it might be worth spending 99 cents on any movie. But when you decide to watch a movie, you are not just spending those 99 cents -- you are also spending the two hours of your life. On the Count of Three was, fortunately, only 86 minutes, but given pauses and naps -- yes, I was pretty sleepy on Monday night -- it actually took more like two-and-a-half hours for me to watch it.

Another reasonable argument is that because I'm a person who assembles a year-end list of movies and ranks them from best to worst, there's a value to seeing movies that are going to end up on the "worst" end of the spectrum. Because I like to get good coverage, I don't only watch movies I think I'll like. I want some real stinkers to find their way in there as well.

But On the Count of Three was less a stinker and more of a "so what?" movie. And that's not because it was frivolous. Actually quite the contrary. The two main characters have a suicide pact. They begin the movie aiming guns at each other's faces, hoping to simultaneously pull the trigger so they will succeed in killing each other, but at the last minute decide to take one more day. This is the story of that day. And on this day, one of the guys considers killing the therapist who molested him when he was a kid.

But even with the heavy themes, it didn't feel like a film that I "needed" to see. In fact, I just sat there wondering why I had allowed its 99 cent price tag to convince me to rent it, when there are dozens of films just on the streaming services I subscribe to that I should probably see, that will actually be free. To say nothing of the streaming services where I don't currently have a subscription.

I think I actually came to this conclusion after I'd rented On the Count of Three but before I'd watched it. The following week's 99 cent movie on iTunes was Infinite Storm, starring Naomi Watts. My finger hovered over the button to rent this one as well, but I hesitated and ultimately aborted. I should rather watch a movie starring Naomi Watts, a bigger name than any of the actors mentioned so far, but I'd already crossed over an imaginary line in my head.

With the changes in the film landscape, there are enough movies I should see that I don't have time for, that I don't need to complicate my viewing schedule by picking up new movies that I don't even know about. Sometimes, they rent movies for 99 cents for a reason.

On the Count of Three is not, probably, the best example of this I could come up with. As I said, it was okay. But when I write posts is a function of when my brain gets the idea to write them, and I got that idea last night.

Besides, I don't really need an okay movie. Give me good or give me terrible. Otherwise you are just wasting my time.

There's always a "that said," so here it is: That said, my #1 movie of 2021 was a 99 cent rental. I can't remember now if I'd heard of Our Friend before I rented it, but given that it starred Jason Segal, Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson, it easily met my standard of having stars I recognized. In that case I aslo recognized Gabriela Cowperthwaite as the director of the documentary Blackfish, and was curious about what she'd do with a feature film.

Maybe I don't need to be making absolute rules. Maybe I do want to find the next Our Friend, and since I had so little expectations for that when I watched it, maybe On the Count of Three could have been it. It wasn't, but do I really want to prevent myself from ever having that sort of wonderful surprise again?

I do know that in the current year, I don't yet have a film that I've seen that I feel is a real candidate to end the year as my #1. If my current #1 ends up there, so be it -- it's a great movie. But it doesn't feel like #1. 

Maybe Infinite Storm would have been it. 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

What if Birdman hadn't won best picture?

There are only three of my 26 #1 movies that I have to look at through the lens of having won best picture -- an honor that occurred after I anointed them as my personal favorite. And winning best picture always creates the possibility, if not the likelihood, of backlash.

With Parasite, there's no backlash. It's either too soon, or most people just agree it's an incredible movie. Yeah I have one friend who thinks it's overrated, but I actually think he's the only person I've ever heard say that. "Backlash" is a word that has no practical meaning in relation to Parasite.

With Titanic, it's all backlash, all the time. But I don't care because I still love it, and always will.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) falls somewhere in the middle. Many people still respect it, but there's a vocal quantity who always thought it was a fatuous critique of show business with ostentatious technique that was always designed to call attention to its own brilliance.

Or so they say. See, if Birdman hadn't won best picture, I suspect it would occupy a far less problematic space in their minds.

I finally got to Birdman on Friday night in my 2022 rewatch of all my former #1s. That gets me down to only seven more of the 26 that I need to watch before the end of the year, when I will duel them all in a special Flickchart account to arrive at a definitive ranking.

Although I ultimately wouldn't need four viewings of it by this point -- the second was for pleasure, the third for considering it for the best of the 2010s -- I continue to really like Birdman

I should probably say "love" -- after all, it did end up as my #21 of that decade. Then again, only one of my #1s from the 2010s (Ruby Sparks) didn't make the top 25, and Birdman was the next closest to missing out -- my lowest ranked #1 in my top 25. (The #1s were bunched up in the middle, as it turned out, as my highest ranked #1, Inside Out, was all the way down at #7.)

In fact, as an indication of how things have shifted, it was bested by two other films I ranked in 2014: #10 Under the Skin, and #14 Boyhood, which was its primary competition for the Oscar that year.

Boyhood has always been a big problem for Birdman in terms of gaining greater popular love, or at least love among cinephiles. Indeed, the former film holds up better on rewatches for me too (just three total viewings for that one, in part because of its ungainly length).

What I fully expected to happen with Birdman was that it would be a critical favorite, but too eccentric to make the Oscar shortlist. Then when it did make that shortlist, I never expected it to become a frontrunner. Even as Oscar night approached and the buzz that it would win became deafening, it seemed more likely to me on some level that Boyhood would pull it out. It had been 17 years since my #1 movie had been named best picture, and I just wasn't used to it.

If Birdman had indeed gone quietly into the night, I think others would like it more today -- including myself.

I can't help but have internalized some of the criticisms of the movie, even if I can't name them for you as readily as I can with other problematic best picture winners (such as Crash and Green Book). I sometime think it's just a vibe people get from Birdman that they don't like, maybe a bit of a "try hard" mentality from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu -- who in some ways tried even harder the next year with The Revenant. And since has not been heard from again in terms of feature films, though that will change in December, when Netflix streams Bardo (False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths). (Hey, the parenthetical title worked for him the first time.)

They certainly can't complain about the cast. I think everyone agreed that welcoming Michael Keaton back into the spotlight was a long-overdue revelation (pun intended, as he won best picture again the following year with Spotlight). Birdman showed us that there was never any reason Keaton should have stopped making films we'd heard of for more than a decade. The rest of the cast is filled with actors we all like or love, like Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. (I think people love Norton even if they've heard rumors that he's difficult.)

As for the storytelling gimmick itself, the appearance that the film takes place all in one shot, I think people were lying if they didn't admit this impressed them. If the Oscars aren't a good time to reward daring uses of the form and methods of creating movie magic in front of our eyes, I don't know when would be a better time.

The fears of the increasing irrelevance of a washed up white man? At the time we hadn't yet rightly concluded that this was a narrative perspective that needed to be retired, or at least sent on a long vacation. So you can hold that against Birdman in retrospect, but not so much in early 2015.

The "film industry sucks its own dick" aspect of the film can probably never be removed from it. We know the academy loves films that consider the plight of its own members, as movies about show biz, even if they are not directly about Hollywood, have always done well with voters. And I suppose Birdman really is about Hollywood, even though it's "about" Broadway, since its critique of superhero films is built right in. Then again, you could argue that Birdman has only increased in resonance in that respect, considering how much more superhero movies dominate the box office even than they did eight years ago. 

And movies about making movies shouldn't automatically carry a black mark against them. As just one example, Adaptation, another #1 of mine, has never really lost any of its luster -- among those who thought it had luster in the first place -- just because it's so much about itself. 

But we'll never know a world where Birdman didn't win best picture, so we can only hypothesize what sort of post-2014 stature it would otherwise have. 

For me, four viewings have not been enough to sour me on it, so I doubt an eventual fifth will either. That probably won't come for another ten years now. The technique of Birdman means there has always been a moment while watching it where I felt its length -- only two hours, but with this technique that feels like a lot. Four times in one decade is enough for now.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Flickchart Friends Favorites Fiesta: Fandango

That's a lot of F's for a Friday.

I'm doing some film writing that I'm proud of each month that is getting lost to the ether of the internet, and I decided it was time to repost some of it here. As I've mentioned in passing from time to time, I'm involved in a Facebook group called Flickchart Friends Favorites Fiesta, in which each month you are matched with another person in the group and assigned to watch the highest ranked film on their Flickchart that you haven't seen. 

You are supposed to then report back to the group your thoughts, though not everyone does. In fact, some people stick their hand up every month to say they are participating, even though they have no realistic plan for watching the movie they get, or they have a plan but no follow through. There are some people who are like six months backed up. I will never understand this sort of flake.

Me, I have never missed a month where I said I was going to participate -- which I think is every month since I started doing this about five years ago. In fact, I can only think of one month where I had to wait until a few days into the next month to watch the movie, and there was a specific reason for this. Barry Levinson's Toys was becoming available for streaming only a few days into the new month, so instead of paying to rent it and watch it in time, I made the quite defensible decision to hold off a few extra days. (And boy am I glad I didn't pay for that movie because I hated it. Someone in the group has it in her top 20. There's no accounting for taste I guess. Then again, many have said this of me with regards to having The Cable Guy and Jesus Christ Superstar in my top 20. These movies have not done well for me when others have drawn them.)

There are no guidelines on how you're supposed to report back, and I think it's really a function of how good of a writer you are. Some people will just contribute a sentence or two. They're not writers and that's totally fine. Others will give detailed analyses even if they aren't great writers or if it might be too granular. More power to them too. As long as you are watching, telling everyone you watched and then telling them where the movie landed on your Flickchart -- the customary last step.

I take it pretty seriously, in that I like to write a mini review of maybe six paragraphs. I almost always write them in about ten minutes just to get it out ASAP, but that doesn't mean I'm not proud of them. 

I was pretty proud of this month's short review of Fandango, which I didn't know much about before watching it -- I'd only heard the title, and didn't realize it was the first collaboration between Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds. I ended up being blown away by it, eventually. 

I may not post what I write every month, but I thought I would post my September movie at least. I usually like to keep some record of things I've written, but in the case of the posts for FFFF, I've tended not to. Sure I can search the group history to find my past writings, but will I? Better to post it here so I know where to find it.

So here's what I wrote about Fandango, removing the name of the person whose chart it came from to protect his privacy -- if that sort of thing matters to him.

I didn't know where [REDACTED]'s #46, Fandango (1985), was going, or whether it was getting there, or what I thought of any of it, until it got to the parachute school scene. A group of recently graduated friends, now eligible for the draft in May of 1971 (and some of them already drafted), led by Kevin Costner and Judd Nelson, are driving through the Texas desert when they come across a dilapidated parachute school. I'm not talking rough around the edges -- I'm talking airfields strewn with the discarded parts of old planes, which appear to have crashed on landing, as well as others literally smashed into the side of the hangar, most of whose windows have also blown out.
The guy running the school, a stoner named Truman Sparks, stumbles out of one of these crashed planes, the milk from his cereal and actual chunks of cereal dribbling down his chin. He can't believe someone actually wants to avail him of his services, but sure, he'll give a quick tutorial on how to parachute that is accomplished through an insane series of scribbles on a chalkboard and one giant run-on sentence. Nelson's character is that unlucky guinea pig, having agreed to the dare on the condition that his friends don't dodge the draft. He's sick to his stomach -- he's also afraid of heights -- but he really wants his friends not to flee to Mexico and do their civic duty. As the plane lifts off the ground, the airfield is again sprayed by the array of nuts and bolts that are supposed to prevent the plane from blowing apart mid-flight.
It was at this point that I realized that Fandango was not some Animal House wannabe where the characters do cheeky and improbable things just to annoy me. It's actually a deeply poignant contemplation of what it means to leave childhood behind, to enter into an uncertain world full of war and big decisions, to leave your friends behind abruptly, with the possibility that you will never see them again -- metaphorically, to always be embarking in an airplane that's missing some of its nuts and bolts, having no idea if the man flying the plane has any knowledge of how to land it, or if your parachute will actually carry you safely to the ground.
Costner plays the main character, Gardner Barnes, who seems always to be riling somebody up or getting them to do something they don't want to do. I sometimes find this sort of character, necessary though they may be as a narrative catalyst, unrelatable at best, unbelievable at worst. But there's something solemn and wistful underneath Gardner's bluster, as despite his apparent lack of belief in rules or concern about consequences, he's a romantic who pines for a lost love. These moments sneak up in the middle of other adventures, like lighting off fireworks in a cemetery, and suddenly he's transported to a romantic cutaway with this woman (Suzie Amis), whose complete role in the narrative is smartly hidden until later in the story.
I can see why Kevin Reynolds would go on to direct Waterworld, as there is something truly apocalyptic about Fandango -- even as it remains a surface-level fun time in the vein of the aforementioned Animal House. If I had to categorize it, I'd call it an apocalyptic, absurdist comedy, which exists more as metaphor than reality. However, there's a heart within that absurdism, and you'll be surprised at how regularly the movie rises up and fully surprises you with how well it does that. In fact, I have kind of always known Reynolds as a laughingstock because in most quarters, neither Waterworld nor Robin Hood is particularly well thought of. But there's a reason why Costner was so loyal to him. He made this.
Oh yeah -- and there is a fifth participant in this odyssey who is passed out literally the entire time.
Let's see how it does on my chart:
Fandango > Lucy
Fandango > Jesus' Son
Fandango > Tropic Thunder
Fandango < The Seventh Seal
Fandango > La Veronica
Fandango > Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Fandango < Zootopia
Fandango > Driving Miss Daisy
Fandango > Greenberg
Fandango > Pump Up the Volume
Fandango > Lethal Weapon 2
Fandango > A Beautiful Mind
425/6039 (93%)
I admit I pushed this thing a bit harder than I expected I would, giving it the victory over some films I never would have guessed it would beat. This is sort of why I wait to rank my films if I can, to allow the initial glow to wear off a bit. But the glow of Fandango was strong, and it may only get stronger with time.
Thanks [REDACTED]!

                                                                  *********.

I usually also like when that person -- [REDACTED] in this case -- comes back to me with some sort of useful comment that engages with something I wrote. It's what I always try to do when my movies get written about. There can even be dialogues that run on for a dozen comments, depending on the movie.

At first I thought the guy had just responded "Thanks for watching" without even a period at the end of the sentence. I was so annoyed by this lack of engagement that I didn't even like his comment and was ready to move on.

Well, I sure am glad I decided to write this post, because going back to it to confirm, I noted that "Thanks for watching" was actually his second comment. The first was indeed quite a substantive response to what I'd written, so now that I've seen that, I've written him an engaged rejoinder as well.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

My 1999 film rankings (in 1999)

This is the ninth in a 2022 monthly posting of the 12 year-end rankings I completed prior to starting this blog, on the occasion of my 25th anniversary of ranking movies. I'm posting them as a form of permanent backup, plus to do a little analysis of how my impression of the movies has changed since then. I'm going in reverse order and will end with 1996 in December. 

Run Lola Run was the first time I was confronted with an issue that would later sort of bother me, though in retrospect, I'm glad it's a precedent I unwittingly set. Namely, it causes some consternation to know that my favorite movie of 1999 is actually from 1998.

Because it was released in its home country in 1998, Tom Tykwer's German language masterpiece, still in my top 25 films of all time, is rightly given a (1998) in parentheses every time someone makes mention of it. However, I had no possibility of ranking it in 1998 because it was not yet released stateside. I made the choice to rank it as my number #1 of 1999 -- it easily bumped the previous frontrunner, Toy Story 2, down to also-ran status -- before I even considered or was consciously aware that there was a potential release year mismatch. But I have subsequently been able to justify this by deciding that every movie deserves the right to have a run at my #1 spot in the first year it's available for me to watch, even if that's two years after it first surfaced in its country of origin. Even if it's three. (In fact, the second post ever on this blog, in January of 2009, was about this very subject.) 

Although I have named a handful of other foreign language films my favorite of the year -- Beyond the Hills in 2013, Toni Erdmann in 2016 and Parasite in 2019 -- only Beyond the Hills has caused this sort of year mismatch again. Beyond the Hills is a 2012 film and yet it is my favorite film of 2013. It's something I live with. 

As a nice snapshot of where I found myself in 1999, I rented Run Lola Run through a service that also delivered snack food, ice cream, and other little odds and ends to your apartment. I lived in New York at the time. That sort of service has since become commonplace, but at the time it was mind-blowing. In a night of indulgence, I may have also had them deliver me some Ben & Jerry's and some Krispy Kreme donuts. I was 26 and I was going to live forever. Once you finished watching, you dropped the movie in one of these little collection bins scattered around the city. I only wish I could remember what the service was called. I don't think it lasted particularly long. 

I was in New York the whole year of 1999. It was the year I finished graduate school at Columbia Journalism School and spent the second half of the year temping. My longest temp assignment was at Goldman Sachs, where I worked for maybe six months as an assistant to investment bankers. I had a nice bond with the other assistants and I'd sometimes stay late to cover the night phones, which was great because you could order dinner up to $20 (that was a lot at the time) and they sent you home in one of the company's town cars. Pretty good deal for a couple extra hours of work that also paid you overtime. Toward the end of that year I also started my first really serious relationship, which lasted about ten months, with the girl I took to my senior prom. We didn't have a long relationship in high school but lasted nearly a year this time around, despite being in different cities (New York and Boston).

Nineteen ninety-nine is often considered to be one of the great movie years of all time, as you will see from the titles below -- and how much some of them have risen in general appreciation, as well as my own appreciation, with the benefit of reflection. 

Here is how my films ranked in 1999, when I closed off my list at the beginning of 2000:

1. Run Lola Run
2. Toy Story 2
3. Three Kings
4. Galaxy Quest
5. The Straight Story
6. Being John Malkovich
7. The Iron Giant
8. The Blair Witch Project
9. Election
10. American Beauty
11. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
12. Sleepy Hollow
13. Titus
14. The Sixth Sense
15. Topsy-Turvy
16. Go
17. Dogma
18. The Limey
19. Muppets from Space
20. Fight Club
21. Magnolia
22. The Matrix
23. American Pie
24. Bowfinger
25. The Hurricane
26. The Red Violin
27. Notting Hill
28. The Insider
29. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
30. Cookie's Fortune
31. The Talented Mr. Ripley
32. Some Fish Can Fly
33. EdTV
34. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
35. Dick
36. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
37. Man on the Moon
38. Varsity Blues
39. Outside Providence
40. Eyes Wide Shut
41. The Minus Man
42. Office Space
43. At First Sight
44. Any Given Sunday
45. Cruel Intentions
46. 200 Cigarettes
47. Payback
48. Bicentennial Man
49. The Muse
50. Runaway Bride
51. The Mummy
52. Three to Tango
53. October Sky
54. William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
55. Analyze This
56. A Dog of Flanders
57. Wild Wild West

And here is the order in which those movies rank out of 6038 movies currently on my Flickchart. Following the ranking is the percentage of the ranking out of 6038 and the number of slots they rose or fell on my Flickchart compared to the other movies from that year that I ranked at the time. A positive number indicates a comparative rise of that many slots, a negative number a fall.

1. The Iron Giant (10, 100%) 6
2. Run Lola Run (22, 100%) -1
3. Galaxy Quest (38, 99%) 1
4. Election (42, 99%) 5
5. The Matrix (109, 98%) 17
6. Three Kings (126, 98%) -3
7. The Sixth Sense (162, 97%) 7
8. Toy Story 2 (164, 97%) -6
9. The Straight Story (261, 96%) -4
10. Being John Malkovich (263, 96%) -4
11. The Blair Witch Project (298, 95%) -3
12. Fight Club (451, 93%) 8
13. The Limey (743, 88%) 5
14. Office Space (753, 88%) 28
15. American Pie (763, 87%) 8
16. American Beauty (766, 87%) -6
17. Go (781, 87%) -1
18. Titus (842, 86%) -5
19. Topsy-Turvy (869, 86%) -4
20. Dogma (913, 85%) -3
21. Muppets from Space (982, 84%) -2
22. Bowfinger (1007, 83%) 2
23. Sleepy Hollow (1033, 83%) -11
24. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1170, 81%) -13
25. Magnolia (1204, 80%) -4
26. Notting Hill (1215, 80%) 1
27. The Insider (1279, 79%) 1
28. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1364, 77%) 8
29. The Hurricane (2074, 66%) -4
30. Cookie's Fortune (2188, 64%) 0
31. Man on the Moon (2296, 62%) 6
32. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (2377, 61%) -3
33. The Red Violin (2454, 59%) -7
34. Outside Providence (2619, 57%) 5
35. The Minus Man (2694, 55%) 6
36. EdTV (3119, 48%) -3
37. Eyes Wide Shut (3125, 48%) 3
38. The Talented Mr. Ripley (3459, 43%) -7
39. Varsity Blues (3535, 41%) -1
40. Some Fish Can Fly (3540, 41%) -8
41. Dick (3670, 39%) -6
42. The Mummy (3984, 34%) 9
43. The Muse (4094, 32%) 6
44. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (4127, 32%) -10
45. At First Sight (4235, 30%) -2
46. Bicentennial Man (4258, 29%) 2
47. Any Given Sunday (4458, 26%) -3
48. Payback (4925, 18%) -1
49. Cruel Intentions (4936, 18%) -4
50. A Dog of Flanders (5260, 13%) 6
51. October Sky (5316, 12%) 2
52. William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (5394, 11%) 2
53. 200 Cigarettes (5441, 10%) -7
54. Analyze This (5444, 10%) 1
55. The Runaway Bride (5766, 5%) -5
56. Three to Tango (6016, 0%) -4
57. Wild Wild West (6023, 0%) 0

Five best movies I've seen since closing the list (alphabetical): American Movie, Audition, Ravenous, The Story of Us, Tarzan
Five worst movies I've seen since closing the list (alphabetical): Detroit Rock City, The General's Daughter, Liar's Poker, The Velocity of Gary, The World is Not Enough
Biggest risers: Office Space (+28), The Matrix (+17), The Mummy (+9)
Biggest fallers: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (-13), Sleepy Hollow (-11), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (-10)
Stayed the same: Cookies's Fortune (30th), Wild Wild West (57th)
Average percentage on Flickchart: 60.93% (1 of 9 so far)

Just how great was the year 1999? The 57 movies I ranked average nearly 61% on my Flickchart, a full five percentage points higher than the previous highest ranking of 55.72%, set last month with the year 2000. Interestingly, though, if you were to open it up to all the 1999 movies I've seen on Flickchart, the percentage would correct itself more toward the middle, since two of those worst movies I've seen since closing the list (Detroit Rock City and Liar's Poker) are in my bottom 25 on my whole chart. Speaking of which, I have no idea how I came to decide that Three to Tango was so awful. I know I didn't like it, but how much worse could it be than a misfired romantic comedy? Those usually occupy more of a middle ground. I might have to watch that one again at some point just to see if my apparent hatred of it holds up.

Still, to accentuate the positive as I started last paragraph doing, 1999 has four movies in my top 100 and eight movies in my top 200 on Flickchart -- certainly high totals for the nine years we've looked at so far. 

One of those eight movies is the comparatively lowly ranked The Matrix, which I continue to marvel was only my 22nd ranked film in 1999. Clearly we didn't know the long-term cultural impact this would have at the time, and I remember thinking it was a really cool action movie but maybe not a lot more than that. Obviously its greatness has been revealed to me over time. 

But The Matrix's 17 spot rise makes it only the second highest riser. Office Space jumped 28 spots, which again I think is an example of the film's unexpected endurance in the culture -- an endurance that has seeped into my thought process as I rank. I think I've still only seen it all the way through that one time, but I have allowed the rest of society to convince me of its classic status. The experience of seeing Office Space was a unique one; it was a film I and a half-dozen other journalism school students saw as a way to decompress after attending the funeral of a classmate's father. (A classmate I had just started seeing at the time, as it so happened.) You'd think that might have negatively colored my impression of the movie, but I remember laughing a bunch and it having the desired effect on our psyches. It was clearly just ranked too low in 1999, when it came in behind mediocre movies like Varsity Blues and Dick -- the latter of which I think of myself as actively disliking. Then again, it's just another indication of the strength of the year in terms of quality. 

Along those lines, the big fallers are not fallers because I have adjusted my impression of them, but just because other gems that had previously been hidden to me have clawed ahead of them. If you ask me my impression of movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Sleepy Hollow, I would speak quite highly of them -- though maybe the fact that both directors have been revealed as one-trick ponies has kept them from holding their relative spots in my rankings. Meanwhile, I think I've just become more realistic about the actual value of the Austin Powers sequel, though at the time I quite enjoyed it -- and actually some of the most iconic Austin Powers material, such as Mini Me and Fat Bastard, comes from that movie.

Okay, October pushes us one year back to 1998. We're only three years from finishing this project.