Saturday, December 14, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Six

Are you as excited to reach the top ten as I am? Just say yes. You can read the previous part of my list here.

There are a few movies in my top ten that some of you people really dropped the ball on. Starting with number ten.

10. INHERENT VICE (Anderson, 2014)

Paul Thomas Anderson's pitch-perfect Thomas Pynchon adaptation couldn't help but win over the hearts and minds of cinephiles, yet somehow it mostly did. I couldn't have been more shocked to read dismissive reviews from reputable critics who found it boring, off-key, joyless, or whatever. I had no explanation for it then, and after about ten more viewings, I remain every bit as baffled.

Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) may be the most endearing protagonist of the decade, a stoner detective who still believes in the Utopian Dream of the '60s while also mourning its now-obvious loss as the calendar flips to 1970. Like the honorable cowboy in a world that no longer needs cowboys, Doc rides the high country of Los Angeles through a rough landscape of hippies, black-power activists, Neo-Nazi bikers, and rogue dentists on a quest for a missing husband (among others) and for the love of his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston). The eccentric shaggy-dog story is hilarious, but is also imbued with an at-times overwhelming poignancy by the constant longing for that lost paradise, a feeling powerfully evoked by the film's opening image, a shot between two beach houses looking out at the placid water.

Anderson populates the film with fantastic supporting actors. From the instant she appears on screen, Jeannie Berlin's flinty Aunt Reet practically demands her own spin-off franchise. And as Bigfoot Bjornsen, the real L.A. cop who plays a TV cop, Josh Brolin provides an antagonist to match ol' Doc, equal parts authoritarian monster and pathetic coward. And Bigfoot sure knows how to thaw a frozen banana.

I loved “Inherent Vice” so much I raced back to the theater each of the next two days while I still had the opportunity to lose myself in its elegiac world on the big screen. And to soak up the killer soundtrack again. The movie also inspired me to read Thomas Pynchon, not just “Inherent Vice” but all of Pynchon, from “V.” through “Bleeding Edge.” “Mason & Dixon” is my favorite, in case you want to know. That alone makes “Inherent Vice” one of the films that has had the most direct and significant positive impact on my life. It's difficult to write about it without wanting to return for one more visit with Doc and the gang. Moto panakeiku!


9. HOLY MOTORS (Carax, 2012)

Director Leos Carax celebrates the archaic but adaptable machine known as the human body from the film's opening shots featuring Etienne-Jules Marey's 19th-century studies in locomotion. It can't be a coincidence that Carax chose Kylie Minogue, whose first pop hit was a cover of “The Loco-Motion,” for a major cameo, right?

Human (???) dynamo Denis Lavant proves to be a living, breathing Marey study himself, a lithe, feral body in constant motion who, as the multi-talented Monsieur Oscar, conducts a series of clandestine missions in Paris while being chauffeured in a limo (another sleek, archaic machine) by Edith Scob. M. Oscar's missions involve donning a motion-capture suit to write around with a remarkably pliable actress, literally chewing the scenery, and squeezing the hell out of an accordion in the most memorable musical number of the decade. There is truly no film performer in the world even remotely similar to Denis Lavant.

“Holy Motors” maintains its kinetic fury as it mourns losses both great and small, many of which involve the modern consumer's unquestioning embrace of anything small and portable and convenient because, as we all know, convenience is the mother of all great art. For those of you who think that all the fussing over the digital transformation of cinema (and other aspects of culture and history) is just a bunch of Neo-Luddite hand-wringing, all I have to say to you is : trois, douze, merde!



Tuesday, December 10, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Five

That's right, I'm only halfway through my list so far. It's not easy to come up with twenty good films from just a single decade. I kid, of course. Mostly. You can read the previous installment here.


12. EX LIBRIS: NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY (Wiseman, 2017)

The end of any decade guarantees the resurgence of one of film criticism's most storied traditions: complaints about best-of lists. Lists, you see, are an abomination in the eyes of the film gods for an unholy host of reasons, ranging from their exclusionary nature to their alleged arbitrariness. I appreciate concerns over how the propagation of canons can promote cultural ossification, but I have never understood how composing a list is any more arbitrary than organizing an argument into sentences and paragraphs. I suspect that some people just hate numbers.

I do, however, hold one strong prejudice about any Best-of-the-Decade list. If it doesn't include anything by Frederick Wiseman, the greatest living American filmmaker, I'm not sure I can take it too seriously. If I want to be generous, I'll admit there's an inherent challenge in selecting a single title from a director who has spent over half a century producing such a rigorously coherent body of work in both style and content. Wiseman documentaries don't blur together by any means, but they do feel like serial installments of a grand, unified masterwork, though one in a constant state of gradual evolution. It can be tough to choose just one chapter for inclusion on a list.

As great as “At Berkeley” (2013) and “National Gallery” (2014) and “In Jackson Heights” (2015) are, I didn't have too much difficulty in picking “Ex Libris” as my favorite Wiseman of the decade and the reason is simple. I love libraries. Also, it feels like I spend part of every week reading social media posts complaining about public libraries being wastes of taxpayer money now that they've been rendered obsolete by the glories of the internet. I very much want to punch every one of these troglodytes in the face.

Wiseman chose a better option. He made a documentary that highlights how relevant and vital the New York Public Library is to the daily lives of many thousands, if not millions, of citizens. The great chronicler of institutions crafts the expected comprehensive study of the NYPL from Patience and Fortitude to the many branch libraries that host drama classes and job fairs and house massive photo archives in addition to being just “storage spaces for books.” Not that there's anything not entirely magnificent about “just” providing a storage space for books. That's really one of my primary goals in life, to be honest.

From administrators debating budgets to the janitors who maintain these shared grounds, thousands of people work together to provide information to the public. It may not be enough to combat the disinformation even a single person can spread on social media, but it's all part of a noble and essential fight. I doubt anyone who wants to defund libraries would have the sense or patience to actually watch “Ex Libris” but... man, I really punch those meatheads in the face.


11. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (Apichatpong, 2010)

Are you living your first life or your tenth? Is heaven overrated? Are you dead or just on TV and how would you tell the difference? Do catfish make the best lovers?

“Uncle Boonmee” raises all of these questions, or maybe I'm just remembering them from previous Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. It doesn't really matter. All timelines converge in the Thai master's Palme d'or winning journey into the remote forests of northern Thailand where relatives travel to visit Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) who is dying of kidney cancer. His life may be ending soon and his world may be severely restricted by his illness, but he's still got plenty of things left to do and people still to see.

Boonmee's dead wife shows up early on, possibly to help to guide him to the underworld, but it's best not to get hung up on literal interpretations. A monkey-ghost with glowing red eyes appears to be Boonmee's son, but he's also a manifestation of the cheapo horror films that thrilled the director in his youth (and maybe still as an adult) and now infuse his animist philosophical ponderings both about letting go of this life and the need to cherish every last experience in it, even if there may be many more lives still to follow. That may not sound like the description of a comedy, but “Uncle Boonmee” is every bit as funny as it is contemplative, a delicate balancing act Apichatpong has perfected on his path to becoming one of the most beloved directors in the world. Please make more movies, Joe!

I was as thrilled as everyone else when I heard about Apichatpong's Palme d'or victory, but when I finally got to see “Uncle Boonmee” my initial impression was that the jury had awarded him for one of his lesser films. I'm still inclined to think that “Mysterious Object At Noon” (2000), “Tropical Malady” (2004), and especially the magisterial “Syndromes and a Century” (2006) are superior films, but I've still got ol' Boonmee up here at #12 for this decade. So what I'm telling you is that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is amazing and you really need to watch those other movies. Either for the first time or the tenth. It doesn't really matter.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Four

I know it's been difficult for so very many of you to wait so long for this next installment in my top films of the decade series, but I had to take a brief break out of respect for Bette Davis week. Ms. Davis wouldn't take kindly to anyone stealing the spotlight from her, and I respect that.

In the previous part, I shared my appreciation for a dying French king and for an Iranian filmmaker just hanging out with his pet iguana. This time I want to write about:



14. HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING (Ross, 2018)

Director/producer/writer/cinematographer/sound designer/editor RaMell Ross chronicles the lives of two young African-American men and their families in rural Alabama over the course of several years. That description doesn't even begin to do justice to Ross's remarkable feature-length debut.

Combining impressionistic imagery with on-screen text and a dense, evocative soundtrack, Ross crafts a unique audiovisual language that allows viewers to adapt to its rhythms. Ross juxtaposes the personal with the celestial, sometimes playfully like when he cuts from a Chick-Fil-A waffle fry to the ghostly image of a partially eclipsed sun. The result is a movie that feels both entirely grounded in quotidian life and transcendent, a philosophical work that I would think any viewer could connect to on a personal and visceral level.

In a stream-lined 78 minutes, “Hale County” expresses both unbridled joy and inconceivable tragedy. Ross has made a cinematic poem of radical empathy, and the most beautiful documentary I've seen in years. I rewatched it recently to see is any of the magic of the first-time viewing had worn off, but the film has only grown in power for me. No single movie can claim to be the definitive American film of its time, but I'm unable to think of a more perceptive and moving portrait of American life in the 21st century than “Hale County.” There's plenty of reason to be skeptical when the word “visionary” is deployed by critics to describe a movie, but believe it this time.



13. THE LIGHTHOUSE (Eggers, 2019)

Screw it. I'm putting it on my list. I wasn't going to. But I am.

I really need to see “The Lighthouse” again. I might be significantly overrating it just because I love its gauzy black-and-white look so much. Or because the movie is so endlessly quotable  - “'Tis begrimed and bedabbled!” Or even just because of that all-time great Willem Dafoe rant (“Hark!”) that I've now watched on YouTube over 100 times. (Ed. Note: 102 times now. I watched it twice more while writing this.)

I'm not certain the movie really goes anywhere in the end either, but it just doesn't matter to me. In Robert Eggers' follow-up to his remarkable debut feature, “The Witch” (2016), the director creates such a tactile hermetic space – a claustrophobic fever-dream reeking of sea-brine and “goddamn fahts” all swirling around in a giant pox-ridden phallus - that there really is no better place to go. Some critics found that unsatisfying and hollow, viewing “The Lighthouse” a curated collection of stylish signifiers that signify nothing in particular.

Maybe they're right. I really do need to watch it again. All I know is that I can only think of a tiny handful of recent movies that generated more pure audiovisual pleasure (oh man, this sound design!) for me in the immediate moment of viewing. I'm in awe of how gracefully the film shifts tone wildly not just from sequence to sequence, but even within scenes. The “Hark!” rant ranges from slapstick comedy to Lovecraftian horror to “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” domestic psychological warfare all in the course of a few minutes. And God what a punchline (“All right, have it your way...”)

I love every single choice Willem Dafoe makes in this movie; every time he clenches his pipe upside down in his rotted teeth, every time he delivers his trademark toast (“Should pale death with treble dread...”), and every bilge-stained bristle of his bushy beard. Pattinson is sensational too. In almost any other film, he'd be the only performer anyone would be talking about, but Dafoe is so damned elemental that his sheer force of will cannot be denied. He's still in that lighthouse right now, just fahtin' up a storm. Pair this with his work in “At Eternity's Gate” (2018) and I'm not sure there's an actor working at a higher level and choosing more interesting roles than Dafoe right now.

I already feel bad enough for only briefly mentioning Pattinson's brilliance, so I'm going to finish with a shout-out to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. This black-and-white photography – washed out in patches, grubby but starkly beautiful – looks like nothing else I've seen in a theater in years. I don't care too much about awards, but we can go on ignoring them all if Blaschke gets shut out.

Monday, November 25, 2019

All About Eve


ALL ABOUT EVE (Mankiewicz, 1950)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 26, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Watching “All About Eve” (1950) for the first time in fifteen years, I was astonished at how faulty my memory of the film was. I mainly remembered a boozy Bette Davis staring daggers at the conniving Anne Baxter and the many caustic zingers (“Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.”), all of which combine to form a scathing portrait of the cutthroat world of Broadway theater, all narcissism, backstabbing, and gossip.

Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, loosely adapting Mary Orr's short story “The Wisdom of Eve”, encourages such an impression by framing the film's opening scenes through the acerbic narration of Machiavellian theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). DeWitt guides us through what turns out be the end of the story, a ceremony at The Sarah Siddons Society where newcomer Eve Harrington (Baxter) receives her Best Actress Award while her former mentor, Margo Channing (Davis), and Margo's friends seethe with resentment. DeWitt hypes up the juicy rivalries just as he would in his daily column, a throwback to an era when critics actually wielded considerable cultural power (Did such a thing ever really exist?) In short, “All About Eve” is all about cynicism.

That's how I remembered it anyway. Yet once the film flashes back to the beginning of the story, the Margo Channing we're introduced isn't a jaded star or a jealous diva, but rather a sympathetic listener. As young, wide-eyed Eve, the absolute biggest Margo Channing fan in the world, relays her sob story (a husband killed in the war, scraping all her pennies together just to go to the theater and see her favorite actress) Margo does, in fact, sob. Well, not quite, but she's sincerely touched as are a host of her fellow theater veterans, including playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen (Celeste Holm), and Margo's crusty and trusty Gal Friday, Birdie (shameless scene-stealer Thelma Ritter).

Margo's so moved she takes Eve under her wing, which turns out to be a critical mistake. The doe-eyed girl allegedly from the boondocks has some secret schemes of her own, most of which involve being a star like Margo. Exactly like Margo, in fact. So much so she even makes a play for Margo's director and fiance, Bill (Gary Merrill, who would marry Davis shortly after filming.)

Davis is such an appropriate choice for the role of aging theater star Margo Channing, it's hard to believe she actually stepped in fairly late in the project after Claudette Colbert was injured shooting another film. If Davis was at her commercial peak in the early '40s in films such as “Now, Voyager”(1942), by the start of the new decade, some felt she needed a comeback to rekindle her career as a hitmaker (her talent, of course, remained at its peak). Davis also happened to be, in Hollywood terms, on the wrong side of forty and perhaps wondered how many leading roles the studios would still have for her.

Mankiewicz has often been described as one of the most literate of Hollywood's writer/directors, often grouped with the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. With “Eve” he showcased his trademark wit in his most beloved setting, the theater. His script takes glee in demeaning cinema as the shameful inferior cousin of the legitimate the-a-ter while also poking fun at the various stage players, from writers to directors to the stars. Playwright Lloyd puts Margo in her place with the admonishment that “It's about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto!” But the super-savvy writer is putty in the hands of a resourceful ingenue like Eve.

“All About Eve” creates a convincing social circle in which the numerous complex interrelationships are fully fleshed out. Margo can be vain and selfish, but her insecurities, some related to being engaged to a younger man, are entirely relatable. Lloyd wants to be loyal to his star, but he really could use a younger actress for his next play. Karen cares deeply for her friend Margo, but wouldn't mind teaching her a little humility. Bill somehow manages to remain a true-blue faithful lover even while shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway. Eve is the intruder that threatens this whole delicate structure, but it may prove to be strong enough to endure even her assault. As for Addison DeWitt, well, he's the heel critic non-pareil, and Sanders was practically born and bred to play him.


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The “new digital restoration was undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox” and the 1080p transfer looks sensational with a thick grainy texture and sharp black-and-white contrast.Fox released a much-praised Blu-ray transfer of this film several years ago. I don't own that release and I don't know if this is sourced from a different restoration, nor can I compare the two. But I'm sure you've never seen it look better unless you've seen a 35 mm print.

Audio:
The LPCM mono audio mix is crisp and distortion-free. Alfred Newman's score sounds great too. I've never quite figured out what to say about the audio on most Blu-rays unless there's a noticeable problem. No problems to talk about here. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Criterion has pressure-packed this two-disc Blu-ray set with extras, almost all of which are on Disc Two.

Disc One includes the film (in maxed-out bitrate) and two 2010 commentary tracks that were both included on the older Fox release. The first commentary includes actress Celeste Holm, author Kenneth Geist, and Christopher Mankiewicz, son of director Joseph. The second commentary features Sam Staggs, author of “All About 'All About Eve.'”

Disc Two is so stacked, it's going to take a while to get through it all.

The producers of this disc went out of their way to shine a spotlight on writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and have provided three substantial features centered on him.

“All About Mankiewicz” (106 min.) is a 1983 documentary which consists almost entirely of extended conversations between the filmmaker and film critic Michel Ciment. The interviews take place both in Germany and in the director's home in Bedford, NY and cover his early childhood through much of his career. Mankiewicz is a gifted raconteur and entertains while narrating his own life at length. This is a real gem.

The disc also includes two related and sometimes overlapping features, one called “Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz” (26 min.) and the other “Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Personal Journey” (26 min.) Both features consist largely of interviews with the director's sons Thomas and Christopher, the director's wife Rosemary, author Kenneth L. Geist, and others. Both features celebrate the director and provide some interesting insights and information. However, “A Personal Journey” offers one of the more glaring mistakes I can recall in a Criterion extra. One expert (who I won't name here) extols the virtues of Joseph's older brother, Herman, a gifted screenwriter best known for the script for “Citizen Kane.” This expert launches into an attack on critic Pauline Kael for taking credit for the script away from Herman and giving it all to Orson Welles. Considering that Kael's book “Raising Kane” is both famous and infamous for making the exact opposite argument, this attack is a wee bit misplaced.

We also get an episode of “Lux Radio Theatre” (60 min.), an Oct 1, 1951 performance of “All About Eve” with most of the film's cast except with Reginald Gardiner in place of George Sanders.

A few short features: Film costume historian Larry McQueen (18 min.) discusses the film's costumes. “The Secret of the Sarah Siddons Society” (7 min.) shows us the real society formed in response to the film's make-believe Sarah Siddons Society. Siddons was a real 18th/19th century English actress and this society has given out real awards to theater actresses for quite some time now. There's also a very short (1 min.) promotional film featuring Bette Davis on the set of “All About Eve.”

Not enough for you? Fine, let's keep going with two episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” - an excerpt of the Dec 31, 1969 episode (20 min.) with Bette Davis in fine form, and then the full Jun 18, 1980 episode (29 min.) with actor Gary Merrill.

The collection wraps up with the gossipy “Hollywood Backstories: All About Eve” (24 min.) that can easily be skipped and then the more interesting “The Real Eve” (18 min.), which relates the story of German actress Elizabeth Bergner and her protege Martina Lawrence, the inspiration for Mary Orr's short story “The Wisdom of Eve.” Lawrence was, to say the least, not happy about having her life story adapted by Orr.

The 44-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty and the Mary Orr short story “The Wisdom of Eve.”

Final Thoughts:
Criterion has put together a jam-packed two-disc set showcasing a sleek high-def transfer of one of Bette Davis's most beloved films. What more do you need to know?