Best Ode to Mediocrity: Sideways
There are more notable filmmakers working now than at any time before. It’s just a matter of access. It is still harder to make a film now than to paint a picture in the 19th century, but there are a fuckton more people who are in a position to pursue a career in art. So I often wonder which films and filmmakers will be remembered during the impending dystopia, after the baby boomers finally collapse civilization under the weight of their greedy retirements. If I could take action on such things, I’d give you very short odds on Alexander Payne. While I can’t identify some special stroke of genius that separates him from any of the dozens of equally celebrated auteurs, he does have a central and universal theme that he has made his own. Payne is the poet laureate of the mediocre. That is, the vast majority of us, usually overlooked, especially by artists. I don’t know why Payne, who went to Stanford and then found some success with his first film and increasingly more with each one to follow, has taken an interest in, neither serial killers and drug addicts, nor presidents and revolutionaries, but in mid-level insurance men, high school civics teachers and novelists who are almost good enough to be published by small presses. However, he is clearly fascinated and nails every detail, from the cars his characters choose to the McAllisters’ bottled salad dressing in Election. Maybe his films are so funny because of this unusual choice in subject. In Sideways, Giamatti and Church are funnier in their pretensions, for example, because there is a seed of justification to them. Bagging a fat chick in the San Joaquin Valley who remembers you from an old soap opera role that led nowhere is funnier than, say, a total loser passing himself off as movie star to a dumb blond. Everything is perfect when Virginia Madsen lobs herself underhanded, right over the heart of the plate while out on the porch with Giamatti, only to have him freeze up and take a called third strike. Would the scene have worked if Giamatti had a National Book Award? Or even if we thought he might win one down the line? Would it have been so frustrating if he was just a joke or a junkie? Obviously, I think not, and the result is one of the most empathetic romantic scenes or record, as we connect completely with both characters simultaneously, as they disconnect. Payne realizes that the struggle between “good enough” and “not quite” is just as fruitful a source material as any. I doubt it’s a coincidence that his own film making tends to be just right, rather than revelatory or jarring. Maybe it’s because he went to Stanford and so forth and doesn’t share, with 95% of living creative types, the delusion that he is Charles Bukowski. Anyway, it’s good.
Best Gangster Saga – Election and Election 2
While the aughts will be remembered as the decade of television, the gangster epic of the decade is not “The Sopranos” by any criteria. It seems like, perhaps in the wake of “The Wire’s” greatness, more people are realizing how flawed David Chase’s opus was. You can’t blame anybody for being blown away by the absurdly high level of the acting and writing at the time. But by now you should be able to look back and see the moral, psychological and narrative impossibilities that culminated in a final season or two that was often unwatchable. The defining scene is when Tony–a minor mob boss–is sent a private luxury jet to fly to Caesars in Vegas to hang out and maybe gamble a few grand, the staff at Caesar’s supposedly having taken the same holiday from sanity and common sense that we were to take in giving a fuck if AJ would get into college or about Meadow’s feelings. With characters like this, at some point, you have to face the fact that they are murdering psychopaths controlled by greed. That is the driving force of the really great gangster films, beginning in recent history with The Godfather and The Godfather Too! , continuing through Goodfellas and the even better Casino (that’s right). Perhaps this sequence of films rounds off in Election and Election 2 (AKA Triad Election). Johnnie To’s films proudly pay homage to these predecessors, particularly in the final murder in Election, which is Fredo’s death combined with the deaths of Nicky Santoro and his brother. Unlike most other HK flicks, including To’s own, there is a mastery of the techniques and material rather than an apprenticeship. If you agree with me that the greatest Godfather moment is Hyman Roth, Michael and some cronies cutting up a cake shaped like Cuba, while discussing how to slice up the people and resources of the country; if you wanted to see more of the decrepit, Machiavellian, Midwestern bosses hashing things out in Casino (“why take a chance?”) you’ll be absorbed by the focus on endless back room dealings and machinations in these films.
Everything is cold calculation; strategy driven only by self-interest and self-aggrandizement. Some abide by a system of honor, but it quickly becomes evident that the system is revered as a method for stability and profitability as an alternative to constant war. With sufficient corporate streamlining, even these ethics can be cast aside and buried alongside their adherents. These men have nothing in common with the Flintstones. Their families don’t humanize them. Contrast an early scene of our protagonist having dinner with his son to another of his son watching him bash in a friend’s head with a rock. If anything, these men drain away any sympathy we might be inclined to feel for their innocent family members. And it is getting to the true ruthlessness of the gangsters that makes this line of films so compelling. We have moments of understanding, of course–they are still human. But perhaps the guilty pleasure in such films is that the coldness of accurate depiction gives us the emotional distance to happily watch psychopaths position themselves and bump each other off like game pieces. And there are some magnificent bump-offs, from quick and brutal daylight hits to a very convincing argument made with sound reasoning, a sledge hammer, a meat cleaver and some German shepherds. Even when a kung fu guy chops up multiple attackers (they had to do it once, they are Asians, after all) the tone isn’t broken. To’s powerful visuals are evidently at their best when applied solemnly, though there are spots of dark humor. The Hong Kong setting–often a pleasure, even in the hands of hacks–gives the gangster epic a fresh surface. The history and the traditions of the Triad are seamlessly integrated with the traditions of Scorsese and Coppola to create something new. And finally, these HK crime epics are well written. Whereas many (or most) of the more celebrated HK films work around the script, these films realize great scripts. It’s said that you can watch them independently, which is true. But you’ll miss some interplay, including direct and subtle allusions, and lines of thought left for the viewer to take up. Watching the films a year apart, it might not occur to you that the viewpoint of Big D, the destructive hot head in Election, is largely vindicated in Election 2. As good as Casino, Goodfellas and the first two Godfathers? Nobody said anything about “films of the century.” But there’s a viable epic here, which I never would have believed.
On the one hand you’ve got Sun, Soukrov’s praised but still underrated piece on the downfall of the emperor of Japan. Some found the film dull, perhaps because it is emotionally hollow, but the beauty of the filmmaking more than makes up for that. Anyway, emotions are for girls. After meeting the Hirohito to negotiate some details of his part in the surrender, MacArthur says what I had been thinking. “He’s like a child.” The Emperor agrees to disavow his divinity–an act that highlights the absurdity of the Japanese arrangement. You can’t agree to stop being the son of a god, you can only agree to stop pretending. Though the Emperor is extremely intelligent and refined, unchecked indulgence has indeed fostered a perpetual child who collects photos of movie stars (why do all dictators love Hollywood?) and practices “marine biology” by dicking around with a microscope while his country lies in ruins. He’s aware of internal tensions, but doesn’t really grasp the external realities, as evidenced by his nightmarish visions of aquatic monsters bombing Japan. Hirohito plausibly theorizes about the reasons for Japan’s defeat, but fails to see that, at the heart of each bad decision, is an antiquated social structure based on personal status and deference, rather than the competition of ideas, and that he is the center of the broken system. All of this is captured in one of the decade’s most subtly great performances by some Japanese guy. The unceremonious MacArthur offers him a box of Hershey bars as a consolation prize.
On the other hand, you have American Splendor, about a schlub of slight notoriety. The mixing of media might seem obvious or trendy after the fact, but it’s perfect and seamless in the movie, as when Harvey’s eventual wife looks for him at the train station, imagining different depictions from his comic books, brought to life with animation. The inclusion of Harvey and his friends works so well because the film is the conclusion of the story. Giving them major roles magnifies the effect the film has on itself. Not only have these dorks from Cleveland, who inhabit a world in which Robert Crumb is fucking Lincoln, occasionally reached the periphery of public attention; there’s a Hollywood movie about the whole thing now, and they’re in it. What makes the film great–apart from stuff like the acting and direction–is that it chooses to focus on a small success story from within a small subculture. Not that Ruthless is on par with a moderately successful series of independent comic books (someone, please cut the breaks on my car tonight), but I was only a bit less shocked to see this site mentioned in The Guardian than Harvey was to get a call from a Letterman producer. Every DIY dork who’s almost died from a boner over selling 500 CDs or getting an article into an obscure magazine that they liked will understand what such small victories mean. It’s not only finding an audience, but finding an audience among people who share your unusual tastes and therefore must be brilliant and discriminating. The film is also a suitable requiem for, and a fun look back at all of that DIY shit, from ‘zines to obscure record collecting. Nerds will compile limited editions and misprinted Wheaties boxes ’till the end of time. But now such practices are marketing ploys and symptoms of social disorders. They were back then too, but they were also part of how unheralded forms of expression forced new outlets. The days when there were veins of creative material only obtainable through “underground” social networks are pretty much gone, unless you’re into kiddie porn, and it’s fun to look back.
Best Crime Film: Bubble
Who says social realism requires the threat of starvation? In America, the joyless existence of the underclass is best represented not by a bicycle thief, but by wares of The Hamburglar. Soderbergh and writer Coleman Hough glean every idiom and detail for his portrait of the struggling middle American. So, as an added perk, this will always be a window to what it’s like in a time and place, which is the most underrated quality a movie can have. I’ve been to New Baltimore, Michigan and New Hartford Falls, Iowa plenty of times. If you want to soak it in without actually having to visit, here’s your chance. The experiment in dialogue must have been tried 20 times per semester at every film school in the country–“I know you’re not an actor, Chase, just talk like you do on the quad. I’m capturing… reality!” But pulling it off so well is fresh and memorable and hinges upon the all of the awkwardness and pointlessness being perfectly designed. There are many moments where we can tell that a character is saying what experienced judgment tells them is the right thing to say in order to fill up a that particular space. The relationships and motivations underlying the mundane and the murder are likewise, sparse but perfect. Martha, our killer, is not only a stepping stone, but one that would only be slightly missed and has already nearly sunk in the mud. Her clumsy and irrelevant gestures around the time of crime–like some random gifts, given in a final effort to inject herself meaningfully into the life of her “friend”– verify that, even as a murderer in a small town, she’ll be forgotten in a year’s time. As an irrelevancy who killed a trivial person who was kind of a bitch anyway, Martha will be denied even infamy.
Man Getting Hit By Football: Punisher: War Zone
Originally, I was going to make this into an 80’s Action Legacy award of some kind. But, if I did that, I’d feel compelled to give the spot to the impeccable Rambo, which is the better movie and also has Rambo in it. But in this case, I’m going against the more cerebral work and with the movie that had me grinning like an idiot the whole time. Yes, Punisher: War Zone has some flaws, including the characters and the story. But then we must also consider what a mighty achievement it is to salvage the fucktastically ridiculous “Loony Bin Jim” character with a single line: “Let me axe you a question.” Another motivation here is that I know most of you have denied yourselves this film, though I sense that it is creeping towards becoming a cult fixture. It is a fact that every single person who has ever seen this film has enjoyed it, and I want you to share in that enjoyment. I’m being serious now. If you are going to see a movie for the action, why would you see some pile of shit like Iron Man, rather than Punisher: War Zone? Iron Man is a story (that makes absolutely no sense) for little boys about some guy who flies around in a magic robot suit. The action is not cartoonish. It is cartoons. I defy anyone to make a significant, qualitative distinction between the CGI cartoons of guys in stupid, magic, robot suits slugging it out at the end of Iron Man and the CGI cartoons of, say, Shrek arguing with Donkey. What, Shrek is cuter? And that makes it OK? Hell fucking no. Look, if you’re going to see Shrek, by all means, see Shrek. It’s a better and far more intelligent film than Iron Man, Fantastic 4 or, for that matter, The Anal Rape of Indiana Jones. But, if you are going to see an action movie, see shit get properly fucked up. In this movie, while it does contain a bit of comic book silliness, The Punisher decapitates an old lady! He jams the leg of a chair through someone’s eye! He runs a man through a glass recycling machine! I’m pretty sure the script is just a string of such exclamations, but director/kickboxer/woman of the century, Lexi Alexander, realizes it beautifully with tension, surprise, humor and some pretty slick filmmaking. Perhaps Ebert’s condemnation is the best recommendation:
“The Punisher: War Zone” is one of the best-made bad movies I’ve seen. It looks great, it hurtles through its paces and is well-acted. The soundtrack is like elevator music if the elevator were in a death plunge. The special effects are state of the art. Its only flaw is that it’s disgusting.”
Best of all, it looks like real action, not a super glossy version of the Saturday morning shit I outgrew at some point during elementary school. I get that we Americans are too pussy to see images from the actual wars we start that kill actual people. But goddammit, at least our fake violence should be real and it should include sadistic heroes, one liners and a novelty death every twelve frames. Football in the groin, not nerfball in the stomach.
Best Horror Film: The Descent
The Descent is about an international group of hot women in their late twenties to early thirties who go on annual adventures. This year, they’ve chosen to explore caves in the Appalachians of North Carolina. One of the girls, hoping to create a truly special experience rather than a run through a “tourist trap,” tricks the group into going into totally unexplored caves, rather than taking the tour they have mapped out. In these unknown caves, they find an enclave of creatures that are kind of a cross between bats and humans–having evolved to survive in total darkness and remaining undiscovered for millennia, though they sustain themselves by preying on whatever animals stumble into the caves. Now, this is a horror movie, so of course you have to suspend disbelief. I mean, a bunch of hot chicks banding together to escape male attention so they can be supportive of each other and pursue their collective interest in geology? But it’s worth letting these things slide to get to some great horror. What sets the movie apart is that it is an excellent thriller even before the ghouls show up, to the point that it doesn’t even need them. The underground setting is beautiful and dangerous, the interactions between the characters seem real and the danger they face is already terrifying. They could plummet to their deaths, be instantly crushed, or they could be trapped and die of starvation, during days of total darkness. It’s also a good problem solving movie, as the women devise plans and utilize tightly fixed resources to maximize their limited chance of survival. When the ghouls show up, they actually could have ruined a good movie. But instead, they make a great one. They are scary, there is not too much CGI and the creatures’ strengths and weaknesses don’t wildly vary depending on if the story’s need for them to be fought off or not. The rest of the film follows the formula, but with some nice twists and one that I think is exceptional. Much has been made of the different endings, one for North American rubes, the other, the original. Though the original ending is immediately darker it’s kind of disjointed. The American one (as I’ve heard it described) still works. Without getting into details, I kind of like the idea of a survivor left to tell the tale, never believed, and to carry the memories of the horror. It’s like the renegade cop who leaves one hoodlum alive and says, “Tell Mendoza. I’m coming.” Either way, I think the real gut punch of the film comes in what the women do to each other in the cave. One mistakes a friend for a ghoul in the dark, and another finds out what happened without knowing the reason why. Some other stuff happens in between. The way this story line unfolds is ice cold, but conflicted. So this shit is just relentless. Woman against nature, against monster, against woman… there are multiple points of tension at all times. Oh shit. I forgot to say, “spelunking.”
Best Movie That Is Just A Bunch Of People Standing Around And Talking–On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate
To the best of my knowledge, the French invented this kind of film and Eric Rohmer perfected it. Nothing earth-shattering happens. People sit, walk, eat and talk and we have a window into pretty unremarkable lives. It’s surprising that this can work as well as it does. It’s even more surprising that, once a few filmmakers figured out how to make it work, very few others were able to successfully emulate them. And no approach to drama is more excruciating when it fails. The formula only works with good (but not necessarily great) acting, understated direction and seemingly organic story and dialog. It is best if the characters are attractive, intelligent and interesting, but none are astronauts, and you probably know 20 people who’ve been through more “drama.” The key seems to be the writer/director’s ability to convey what is going on in his characters’ heads, without doing anything intrusive or interrupting the natural flow of events. Ultimately there should be an illusion that the main creative force behind the film is merely trying to stay out of the way, even when he is slipping small cues into beautifully framed shots. Then, you just get sucked in by the these characters and their stories for no immediately obvious reason, as you are to Sang-soo Hong’s soap operas about nothing. An Occasion for Remembering The Turning Gate has a betrayal, remorse, and requited lust that turns into unrequited love (or at least longing), but these things happen in a few, key moments. The rest of the film is the pedestrian shit that leads up to and comes after the “big” events. It’s the unspoken jockying for position between romantic rivals, the manipulations of suitors by the desired and the winner immediately weaseling out of commitments after the game is over. There are also ancillary events that don’t really lead to anything, but might have. The characters are sympathetic, or not, depending largely on the tendencies of the viewer. The important thing is how real they seem. You can argue that Hong’s films, much like Asian people in general, are all pretty much the same, and I’ve found a couple others more entertaining. I just picked this one because it seems like an answer to a favorite Woody line: that the only love that lasts forever is unrequited love. True, but because we idealize them at some point, all loves wind up feeling at least partially unrequited and this lingers into future relationships. This is one reason you will never be happy. I assume the final shot of the gate in a downpour is meant to evoke, not only the titular myth about a princess ditching an infatuated peasant to execution, then ditching him again after he finds her in reincarnation as a snake, but also, Rashomon. Each relationship is a potential version of the protagonist’s love story. It’s not so much the same events perceived differently from different individual perspectives, as the individual wavering between his own perceptions of what has been, could have been and could be. For example, towards the end of the film, the protagonist runs into a girl who he saved from bullies when they were children. It sounds like the beginning of a Kate Hudson movie and he and she are suitably intrigued. He decides that maybe there’s a reason he didn’t remember her (plus, she is married) and gives up after a brief pursuit, but only reluctantly and wondering. All of this is sedate to the point of being relaxing and conveyed mostly through conversation and static shots. And some graphic, bareback banging.
Best intellectual exercise: Inglourious Basterds
I have only have a little to add to Matt’s review. That is where you should start. I read it before I saw Inglorious Basterds, which, based on the trailers, I had been leaning against, as the film looked like it overestimated our willingness to savor the suffering of an otherwise unknown man because he wound up fighting for an evil cause. So I luckily had my eyes open early on, when The Jew Hunter gives his little speech about how we hate certain beings without really considering why. If it didn’t dawn on you until later that QT was massively fucking with the audience, and everything else that the film touches, it’s worth rewatching. Basterds is also worth another look because it is fucking great. Anyway, rather than regurgitate or slightly tweak too many of Matt’s points, I just want to reiterate how special an achievement the film is because there are so many who would to diminish everything Tarantino does. I remember the one film class I took in college, when the professor said that Tarantino was not so much good at making movies, as at stitching together other people’s movies. This is a common criticism. The justification is that he–holy shit!–is influenced by other filmmakers and often reworks what they’ve done. I sat in intimidated silence, not wanting to be like some kid who struts into ethics 101 (or any other class), proudly touting Ayn Rand. But I really had to wonder which little Asian film, known only to QT and his critics, had so pithy, smooth and entertaining a commentary on how we are “fooled by randomness” as Pulp Fiction‘s sequence in which Jules is luckily missed by gunfire at close range, becomes a man of faith, and then doesn’t flinch when his ally, Marvin, is shot dead by a freak discharge midway through his personal conversion. So, these people who want to diminish Tarantino’s work are generally the people who go to museums where you eat a piece of candy and they are like, “that’s the art!” I actually enjoy conceptual art and the idea of playing with interaction between the artist and viewer. But you can’t have it both ways and celebrate the museum piece and disparage one of our great filmmakers because the wrong people like him, especially in this case. If you saw Basterds with an audience of more than a dozen, you almost certainly saw people in a movie theater sadistically hooting and cheering at the deaths and suffering of characters on the screen. They were so delighted because they despised these characters who were… sadistically hooting and cheering at the deaths of characters on the screen of the movie theater they were in. Tarantino actually gets the audience to act out the parts of the villains on screen, the very characters they were cheering the deaths of, to the point where it felt like someone is flipping a switch back and forth between the two, making one cheer, then the other. And the attackers of the hooting, Nazi audience in the movie are the filmmakers, who reveal a message of condemnation covertly slipped into the film, before attacking from behind the screen and from within the projectionist’s booth. Tarantino is playing with his audience, but is he condemning them? The characters are actual, fictional Nazis, but the audience is just watching a movie and it’s not like Tarantino opposes violence in cinema. Maybe he’s just making fun of all parties for not being able to make the simple distinction between real suffering and actors playing with fake guns and blood. In any case, out of the millions of attempts to incorporate the audience into the art, you’d be hard pressed to find one so slyly yet directly successful and you won’t find one on such a massive, international scale. And, it wasn’t like, “that’s the art!” That was one flourish of art incorporated into an entertaining movie that was full of them, including one legendary acting performance and a few very good ones, a few laugh out loud moments and Tarantino’s, now barely noteworthy command of both dialogue and the visual. You can weave interpretations forever about the film as the end of the historical film, or a critique of propaganda, a commentary on the nature of terrorism and a Godard-inspired deconstruction and a bookend to his Les carabiniers and on and on, and you’d be right to do so. But I doubt Tarantino had some central, propaganda point of his own in mind. He just puts so many cards on the table that he must be playing more than one game at once–or at least some game I can’t totally decipher–about movies, their relation to real life, history, war and violence. Just take something small. Did Tarrantino, who can have any actor he wants, chose Eli Roth (Hostel, the “torture porn” discussion) for a big role in this film about movie violence just because they are pals? Quite possibly. But that’s just one card on the table.
Best Zucker Movie: OSS 117: Lost in Rio
Obviously, the real David Zucker caught syphilis, went insane and made An American Carol, so the torch must be passed, but only after it is used to burn the script of the upcoming Scary Movie 5. The OSS 117 movies are celebrated like few others in our forums, but I’ve found only one English review of OSS 117: Lost in Rio online and it was written by a gorilla. The online review claims that the OSS films rely upon “a refusal to go for the easy joke” which is the exact opposite of how they work. The films take every easy joke that comes their way, though they usually finesse it to perfection. The “easy” jokes are mixed with more subtle humor, wit, parody and satire in equal parts. There is no less original film on this list. The OSS films are based on a real OSS 117 series of “serious,” Bond-style spy capers from the 50’s and 60’s. They owe a lot to the Zuckers and Jim Abrams. Obviously, making fun of spy movies and the “hip” film techniques of the 60’s is nothing new. It was actually being done during the 60’s. Nor is the guileless, political incorrectness of the bungling master spy, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, particularly innovative. It is impressive, however, that the films take so many influences and approaches to humor and blend them into a perfect cocktail. Michel Hazanavicius’s films wouldn’t be David Zucker films if they didn’t misfire here and there, but that’s part of the charm. Jean Dujardin stars and is one part the actor you wish Bruce Campbell had become, one part Leslie Neilsen. I don’t think humor translates across language and cultural barriers as well as people like to pretend it does, but Dujardin really does git r done here with a comic performance bordering on genius. Doubtless, some of the humor is still lost in translation, but I was laughing out loud pretty much throughout the film. Americans will appreciate how La Bath’s imperial arrogance mirrors the caricature of the Ugly American. Take the film as an overture to mend the resentments between the two countries. Frenchmen and Americans are both self-important pricks and this should be a cause for unity. There are two films in the series so far, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio. I probably chose the latter, more recent film because I just saw it. However, it also refines the OSS 117 blend even further. Like Austin Powers, OSS 117 borrows much of the earnest appeal of the very films it parodies, including exotic settings. There are some beautiful, and hilarious uses of the Rio setting here. And, yeah, it’s meant to be a joke that the oafish spy is swimming in scantily clad, model-caliber ass, but it’s by design that the audience gets a good look as well. So for hot chicks in leather costumes and cheap jokes about Chinese accents, you turn to little-known French films. For winding deconstructions of film, violence, war and war and violence and film that integrate the reactions of the audience into the movie itself, you turn to $100 million-grossing Brad Pitt movies. We’re in Rand McNally, people.