Turn and Face the Strange: How Digital Humanists Embrace a Culture of Adaptation

(This post was originally written as an assignment in my grad level DH class. Part of the assignment was to write about how I might use DH in my own work in the future, but when I wrote this I had very little idea of what was possible in the field. Now, in the process of revising and adding to the assignments to complete them for the portfolio, I will include an addendum post which covers that question in some detail.)

As will happen to any new entry onto a field of combatants, Digital Humanities has taken its dings here and there. Some seek to destroy it, claiming that it has no part – or no special part – in the field of humanities, while others are critical of its lack of standards and cultural awareness. These are not entirely wrongheaded arguments against DH, but they do miss some key elements of the field that are seeking to address the problems it finds itself in. Digital humanists are quite aware of what they’re going through, and because of the flexibility inherent in the digital realm they are able to turn themselves to face the issues present in their field with more ease than traditional sections of the humanities.

Perhaps one of the strongest attacks against the Digital Humanities comes from David Golumbia, who goes through some of the claims that Digital humanists make and demonstrates how destructive those ideas can be to the humanities as a whole in his essay, “Death of a Dicipline.” Included in his wrath is the idea that Digital humanists who, “wish to participate in literary studies … need to express much more clearly their commitment to existing forms of scholarly practice and their arguments for rejecting them in their own practice” (158). This hostility comes from one of the areas where Digital humanists are trying to change the way their institutions work, specifically that of questioning the value of individual authorship when it comes to papers and projects. The Digital Humanities is an inherently cooperative field and the more open process of coming up with new scholarship in it is not an attack on the old way but rather a recognition that the old methodology just does not work within new paradigms of research. Their only want is to have the collaborative work they do count towards the standards of advancement within the academic sphere (Gold 148). Of course more traditional research will still be done, and Digital humanists are not opposed to the traditional just because it is traditional.

There are places, though, where Digital humanists are working to tear down old ideas. A major example is that of open publishing. Where the orthodoxy of the academy has always been about holding research as part of its intellectual property, Digital humanists often see the research they create, including the tools they create to do their work, as being part of the knowledge base of the internet. It adapts the internet’s language and ideals because it is immersed within it, so open source becomes a kind of primary directive, and the free sharing of the final results (along with the documentation of the process getting to those results) is encouraged. This is yet another example of the Digital Humanities seeing a problem, that of knowledge being kept from people who would get the most out of it, and solving it by facing it head on.

But the complaints about Digital Humanities are not just based on their participation in or destruction of traditional academic procedures, they also stem from the kind of work that Digital humanists do. Golumbia laments (again) the loss of an old way of doing something to DH’s new world order when he claims that, “DH recommends the demotion of interpretive close readings as the hallmark of literary study, especially in its widespread deployment of ‘distant reading’” (160). But again, while the majority of DH scholars may participate more often in “distant reading,” studying a large body of texts using statistical means among others, than they do interpretive close readings, they make no value judgements about their research over that of the standard English scholar, just as a Victorianist does not claim to be better or do better work than a Modernist. They are just interested in different areas of the same very wide field. That is, distant reading will not supplant close reading as the dominant means of understanding literature. But it might augment close readings of texts by providing an overarching understanding of a time period or genre or even individual body of work through which a traditional scholar can frame his work.

Golumbia is not the only critic of the Digital Humanities, either. Alan Liu asks a straightforward question in his essay, “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” It is a good question, because cultural criticism has become one of the major subgenres of the wider Humanities. Liu argues that, so far, the Digital Humanities has just been a servant to Humanities as a whole, and the only way he sees for Digital humanists to become full-fledged humanists is to start engaging in the dominant mode of conversation in the field, that of cultural criticism. He is just one in a sea of voices calling for increased participation from the Digital Humanities in the realms of conventional Humanities. Johanna Drucker is unhappy with the ways the digital part of Digital Humanities has overshadowed the humanities element. Specifically, she wonders in her essay “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” “Have the humanities had any impact on the digital environment? Can we create graphical interfaces and digital platforms from humanistic methods?” (1). She goes on to criticize the way Digital humanists have embraced tools like Google Maps to present information because it misrepresents location and movement between one spot and another as fixed elements where the reality would necessarily be more complex than that. Specifically, she presents the DH project, Mapping the Republic of Letters, as an exemplar of the spatial (and temporal) conflation that troubles her. It shows the journeys letters written in the 18th century took from sender to receiver but does so in straight lines rather than the decidedly more twisted and fraught journeys they must have taken in the real world. Both Drucker and Liu present this distance between the digital and the humanities as a problem, and it certainly is one, but Digital humanists have seen that this is the case and so are beginning to address it. That a project showing the correspondence journeys is even happening at all is a big step from the earlier work Digital humanists were doing, organizing and archiving all sorts of writing. This kind of constructive criticism is what propels a new field into its maturity.

Because seemingly all writings about DH must include a reference to its beginnings with Father Roberto Busa, let him serve as a model citizen in the DH community. Here was a man who saw a way for new technology to enhance his Index Thomisticus, a giant, searchable, collection of all of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s writings. He sought out people in the digital industries, specifically at IBM, to help him figure out what he was doing and how to do it. In creating punchcards for every word written by Aquinas, he was performing a mix of methods old and new, for it was a very old kind of thing he was making, a concordance, in a very new way. His work allows one to search for all the occurrences of a given word in Aquinas’s writing and that seems as helpful to a scholar studying Aquinas as it can be. The development cost of this kind of work must have been gigantic, but as of 2005, it is freely accessible on the internet for any and all to use. The Digital Humanities can be an essential part of the Humanities if it continues its pattern of changing itself in the face of criticism from within and without. Like Busa switched from punchcards to magnetic tape and later internet code, so too can the Digital Humanities adapt with the times and become more than just a servant at the table of the broader humanities.


Works Cited

Drucker, Johanna. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Print Edition ed. U of Minnesota, 2012. Print.

Gold, Matthew. “Digital Humanities.” Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (2014): 143-48. Print.

Golumbia, David. “Death of a Discipline.” differences 25.1 (2014): 156-176.

Review: Children of Men (2006)

Children of men duo

In 2006, I saw a trailer for a movie that looked pretty cool. It sold two things: a nearly-apocalyptic world and that world’s potential salvation in the form of a pregnant woman, the first in a 10 year period. Looking back, it also lays out basically the entire film and yet it gets at very little of what makes the movie a very special example of the artform. But let’s just pause on that for a second.

If you ask 10 relatively knowledgeable people to name one thing about Children of Men, you’ll probably get some kind of comment about the long takes it features so heavily. This was not a new trick for Alfonso Cuaron nor was it the last time he’d go to this well, given the spectacular opening 20 minute section of Gravity. It is, you might say, his gimmick. I was impressed with this gimmick the first few times I watched Children of Men because, well, gimmicks are impressive, especially those that take a heck of a lot of timing and talent to pull off. Later on, though, I began to think of them in the more colloquial sense of the term “gimmick”, i.e. with a negative connotation. What does the movie have outside these trick shots? Does it even count if the shots have been digitally blended together? Do these long takes in fact detract from the film’s fairly powerful story and instead focus the audience’s attention on “look at me” filmmaking? So I thought, and so I have argued here. I turned on Children of Men, which at one point probably held the title for most rewatched movie in my adult life right at the beginning of my budding deeper appreciation for film.

children of Men

I think that might have something to do with why I turned on the film, actually. This was one of my first ever-so-slightly outside the mainstream films (it wasn’t shown at my local multiplex, I had to go instead to the arthouse theater in my closest city to see it) and I made sure all of my friends knew how great it was. But then I began to look further into the arthouse, I dug deeper into the past and went further afield into foreign cinema. Could I rightly go back to one of the films that I saw only at the beginning of those travels? Certainly not. I try not to be snobby about my taste in movies as much as possible, but I still have a slight tendency to overestimate the strange and underestimate the very normal but very good. With the gimmick tag attached to Children of Men, it never stood a chance of remaining on my top 100 lists and instead fell to the wayside of “movies I grew out of”.

And so now with all of that preamble out of the way, was I right about the gimmicky nature of Children of Men‘s aesthetics and did it rightfully fall out of favor? Well, no. The long takes in Children of Men are fancy, they are attention-grabbing, but most of all they’re integral to the way Cuaron crafts the deep sense of despair that permeates every frame. Take the film’s opening scene for example. It is effectively two shots long. The first is a wide shot of the interior of a cafe packed with shocked onlookers as they watch the news footage which reports that Baby Diego, the youngest person to be born, died earlier that day. You can hear quiet sobs but in the middle of it all Clive Owen’s dejected Theo pushes his way up to the counter and buys a coffee and then leaves. There’s a shot or two of the tv everybody else is looking at but mostly it places Theo as a man apart from the rest of the population. Later we learn that it’s because he’s already suffered his own great loss and has enveloped himself in a cocoon of unfeeling sadness. This is what they call depression.


The second shot is an exterior one and unlike the first it is a handheld shot which doesn’t only follow Theo as he walks out of the store and adds his sugar a hundred or two feet away but also takes some time to pan around the area outside the shop. We see some signs of life that look relatively normal and some out of place futuristic things, but most importantly we can immediately sense that this is not the London we are used to. It is a depressed city, a little 1984-ish and a lot dirty. We already begin to feel just how far man has fallen before the bomb that was in the cafe explodes. It shakes Theo and the camera and it takes both of them a few seconds to get their feet back under them. And then the shot ends with a woman walking out of the smoke holding her dismembered arm in her other hand.

The rest of the film uses the many long takes (most are not quite as long as the car attack and the final battle which get so much of the press, but longer than normal for sure) it is made of for the same purposes as it uses those two: to build the world seemlessly and to ground the characters within it definitively. The camera isn’t always attached directly to Theo nor does it ever stray too far from him so we don’t run the risk of losing him in the gray and gritty world the film so adroitly creates and populates with the end of humanity. That’s what hit me the most this time around. It’s such an engaging and creatively crafted film that I couldn’t help but get pulled into its sad and fully realized universe.


It is, then, a triumph when, at the end of the film, the fighting stops for a moment and everybody watches as Theo, Kee, and her baby escape the fighting in a refugee camp thanks to the crying coming from the baby. It is not to brag about my willingness to cry that I say I teared up at this scene but rather to poke a finger in my own chest. How could I have decried the film for being just a cheap gimmick when those long takes are what creates the emotional connection to the film, pulling me deeper and further in to its dark vision of the future only to show the light at the end of the tunnel, even if only for a moment? Have I ever been so wrong about a movie before?

Review: Inherent Vice (2014)


You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.

If you need a clue that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, is a film noir, look no further than Johnny Greenwood’s wonderful score. Where his earlier collaboration with the director on There Will Be Blood was all strings and tension, this score is more laid back, low key, mournful, and full of horns. The soundtrack, on the other hand, often points in the other direction. When the movie wants to be upbeat and exciting as it sometimes does, Anderson will use a previously written pop song like Can’s “Vitamin C” to give the movie that edge. It’s no secret by now that Anderson is a master, one of the best directors working and probably of all time, and his ability to pick songs and collaborators which fit so perfectly with what he wants to do is just one more example of his brilliance. That being said, Inherent Vice is not your typical Paul Thomas Anderson movie.


Many of Anderson’s previous films have been focused on a monomaniacal character whose fanatical pursuit of some cause or idea, whether it be riches via oil or fame via porn, leads to a terrible end for said character. No such thing happens here, though Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc sure does pursue his missing ex-girlfriend and her missing current boyfriend. If that sentence confuses you, prepare to be mired in a plot that aims to be confounding rather than clear. I followed it for a good while until one new name too many dropped in my lap and I just threw my hands up and went for the ride. I’m sure the plot is comprehensible if you see it an additional time or two, but with so many side characters who show up for a scene to impart some piece of information about another side character and then do some drugs, I don’t think it really matters too much. I think the convoluted plot is just another joke. With each new encounter the absurdity builds. This is a very funny movie. I’m not sure you could go through and pick out lines that were funny out of context, but within the world of the film the increasingly farcical situations really worked for me.

That isn’t to say, though, that this film is a comedy. It is sad as often as it is hilarious. The thesis, if you can call it that, is that Doc is a relic of the past. His hippie nature is already outdated as the sixties turn into the seventies. The forces of evil aren’t just The Man anymore, and free love means getting pulled over by a cop because there are more than three people in the car with hair past their ears. Even Doc can’t hold on to his outsider status as much as he would like to. There is a contrast there between him and his frennemy, an LAPD detective named Bigfoot, played wonderfully by Josh Brolin. Bigfoot used to be a hippie but sometime before the film starts he got a hair cut and learned of the power that comes from civil rights violations. In some ways he is a character to be pitied, especially in his final scene, and his inability to cope with becoming The Man and getting mixed up in drug trafficking from the other side of the law is in stark relief to Doc’s ability to go with the flow. In fact, this is the most I’ve liked Joaquin Phoenix in about a decade for exactly that reason. Under Anderson’s direction he abandons all sense of self-seriousness in favor of a cool detachment that really works for the character and for him. He’s delightful when interacting with prostitutes, musicians, FBI agents, real estate magnate’s wives and girlfriends, and hopped up dentists alike. Doc’s existence is not an enviable one, though I very much enjoyed my time visiting it.

Inherent Vice

I think the most remarkable element of the movie is, if I may steal some of its vernacular, the vibe Anderson creates in part through long tracking shots of a very different variety from those that made him famous in the late nineties as a technically exciting filmmaker. The movie is propulsive in a slow, mellow way that never feels the pressure to conform to typical scene constructions or even typical story progression. So those shots which start wide on Doc and the other minor character he’s sharing the scene with and move ever so slowly closer and closer until they end as a close up of the two are basically the movie in miniature. What starts as an expansive tale of corruption and misdeeds ends in loneliness and uncertainty of a very personal nature. There is much in the world that Doc can’t control and although he has been willing to let that ride, it does make for a harshed buzz.

2014 Movie Discoveries

It’s time again for that annual tradition of looking back on the year in movies released before 2014. I watched around 200 movies last year and around 130 of them were not from last year. These are the 40 best examples from those 130. I’ll include a snippet from my review and the title of the film is a link to the full review on my letterboxd page (and you can see this list there as well). Leave your favorite non-2014 new watch in the comments or let me know what you think of my choices.

40. Wake in Fright (1971)


The triumphs of the movie are its atmosphere and the climax, which involves a kangaroo hunt. The bloodthirsty nature of this scene is almost physically revolting. Powerful stuff.

39. Muscle Shoals (2013)

Muscle Shoals

This is where Aretha got her soul, where Wilson Pickett learned to chill out, and where southern rock was invented. Check out the list of records made in Muscle Shoals and you’ll come to the same conclusion that the film does: there must be something special in the water that brings out the best in the artists who work there.

38. Scrooged (1988)


Bobcat Goldthwait’s character is my favorite, and his shotgun rampage is really fun. More fun his the scene after Murray has his revelation and recruits Goldthwait to his hijacking of the show. There’s a bunch of really funny slapstick there.

37. Swing Time (1936)


Ginger Rogers is a total charmer and a fantastic partner for Astaire’s witty dancing. I’ll surely continue to seek out their films together. Like I said, almost everything else here is fine (too much time is spent doing things that I don’t care about, and the plot is silly to the max), but to see them move together is something wonderful.

36. Easy A (2010)


There’s a lot to be said about just how much screen presence means for a film. A version of this movie that is all the same except that it stars, say, Megan Fox, would probably end up being an acceptable film, but it wouldn’t have nearly the grace nor wit that Emma Stone brings to the movie. While there’s a little bit of disbelief suspending that must be done to buy such a shining presence as the loser she is supposed to be, Stone sells the hell out of it. Her home life, featuring Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her mother and father, believably creates an environment that would forge this young woman, a person who relies upon her whip-sharp tongue to cover for a certain lack of social skills.

35. Dancer in the Dark (2000)


Von Trier also changes his directorial style for these flights of fancy (almost all of them take place in Bjork’s imagination with the distinct exception of the final number) as he subdues his usually frantic camerawork for static, often very wide shots. His crazy editing is still there, so they don’t feel entirely out of place, but it’s a great strategy to call attention to her only means of escape.

34. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)


Their normal faces turn out to be just masks hiding their true, veiny blue faces. It’s a disturbing effect, one which cleverly visualizes the distinct inhumanity of these supposed humans. They’ve been warped both physically and mentally by the doomsday bomb they treat like a religious figure, becoming the epitome of the people Heston’s Taylor so hated in the opening of the original film.

33. Streets of Fire (1984)

Streets of Fire

Heightened to the point of absurdity, everybody is just doing things to do them. Sure, let’s kidnap a rock star. Sound’s like a fun day at the beach. Fine, I’ll go rescue her, but only if I can also bring along a new friend and a total idiot that has almost no use in the plot at all. Ok, we did it, now what? We’ve still got half a movie left to go.

32. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)


At the outset I was afraid I was in for another Tommy experience, and that wasn’t a nice proposition. Luckily, De Palma avoids that film’s major pitfalls by having several characters about whom I care (the titular Phantom, the sleazy (and satanic) record producer, and the siren with whom both are obsessed) and injecting some actually comedic humor into what might have been overly dour/crazy happenings.

31. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)


Carl Theodore Dryer doesn’t flinch away from showing some of the human brutality that can be wrought from a conflict of religious ideas and the scene in the torture dungeon with the spinning wheel-o-spikes and the divots cut into the floor stained with blood show that these clergy members aren’t shy about inflicting pain. Nor does he cut away nearly as much as I expected him to in the final fiery scene. This may be 1928, but it doesn’t feel like many punches are being pulled.

30. The Monster Squad (1987)


I’m a little bit of a wuss and I have a built in fear of werewolves in general but I think this movie is actually pretty scary. Certainly scarier than The Boxtrolls, which got a bit of guff for being “too scary”. Ha! Here the Wolfman howls and there’s a creepy old house and I get a few chills. That is, until our hero urges his friend to kick the Wolfman in the nards, which he does and then exclaims, “Wolfman’s got nards!” HA!

29. I Am Love (2009)

I am love

Later, they consummate the relationship and it becomes a deconstruction of her body. A breast here, a hand there, a jaw, an eye. She is being taken apart and reformed in front of us. A new woman. There are further developments, but I’ll leave those for you to discover on your own. You should. They’re fascinating.

28. Funny Face (1957)


I liked the feints towards an intellectual rigor that I haven’t seen many of the mid-century movies make, though it doesn’t do much with it outside the meet-cute and the fantastic and iconic modern dance scene. And how great is that scene? a smoky underground Parisian cafe comes to life with her half-awkward, half-graceful movement, all done with a knowing wink towards the audience and Astaire.

27. Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai

Frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune is again amazing here, all energy and rage and motion. His backstory, filled in some 3 hours into the film, forms the center of the movie’s conscience. It is about the difference between farmers and samurai, and the ways that those two groups can interact with each other.

26. The Remains of the Day (1993)

Remains of the Day

Emma Thompson never felt like there was nothing happening under her calm surface. When she’s angry there’s a twitch of the neck muscles, or when she’s sad her eyes fill with tears that never fall. Repression is the name of the game, and she plays it wonderfully.

25. 7 Plus Seven (1970)

7 plus seven

The class separation is probably the most fascinating of the topics discussed this time around. Everybody seems like such a product of their background when the sample is so wide and covered so well. I’m excited to see how this develops.

24. White Tiger (2012)

White Tiger 1

It is a Russian film, after all, and they like their allegories. This one’s pretty strong, if all the talk of Tank Gods don’t turn you off from the jump. Late in the film the characters higher up in the Russian army talk quite frankly about the things that our hero represents. He is the embodiment of war, they say, as he has forgotten all of his previous life and even his new name is forged in battle. He’s the perfect war machine that just happens to be wearing a fleshy body. The White Tiger, too, serves some allegorical purposes. It is the fear the Germans instill in their enemies, and the ruthless efficiency of their forces made metal.

23. My Fair Lady (1964)


In fact, it’s kind of a wonder, visually speaking. There are a few times when director George Cukor stops his actors in mid stride and composes them in the frame as if it were a painting. Once, towards the beginning after the first night in the film, he has a kind of opening up shop sequence which begins with a few people entering the frame and then freezing in place while still others enter and then freeze and then the whole thing happens once again. I’m not sure what’s going on there, other than maybe that Cukor is calling attention to the artifice of social stratification or maybe to the fact that we all play our own roles in life, even as we go about our chores or jobs. It happens again at the horse race with all of the ritual and formality that such an occasion demands.

22. The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Legend of Hell House

The rest of the film is full of fun atmospheric touches, especially at night as things take a turn for the lurid. Hough films much of the movie with super wide lenses to fill as much of the screen with detail as possible. He often puts something big in the foreground and places the action off to the side, which heightens the atmosphere and sense of character of the house delightfully.

21. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

much ado about nothing

That Emma Thompson played Beatrice’s smart, witty maneater perfectly was not surprising. There’s something in her that latches on to intelligent women and makes them seem even smarter than they are on the page. She is able to convey a great deal of inside stuff via small gestures and facial movements. Her partner here, director Kenneth Branagh, does Benedick fine, but not nearly as interestingly as Denisof did him. Denzel Washington comports himself quite nicely with the language, and he shares one of the great scenes in the film with Thompson which plays as if they are old friends.

20. Onibaba (1964)


It’s that grass that hides people from each other and creates an uncanny other-worldliness in which this fable takes place. Described by its director as an allegory for post-nuclear Japan, Onibaba contains some fascinating cultural details, some of which were probably lost on me. One that wasn’t is the mask of a samurai that enters the film late but gives it the final kick in the pants it needs to bring everything to a head. When it is removed from his face, the scars and boils left behind are grotesque renditions of the burns from the nuclear attacks the Japanese suffered at the end of WWII.

19. Three Colors: Blue (1993)


Binoche doesn’t play her emotions loudly or with a whole lot of passion, even. For a person who recently went through a trauma, she’s surprisingly evenhanded. After she realizes she’s free (ah, Liberty) she cuts herself off from everybody that knew her before the accident and attempts to live in total solitude – in the middle of a city. It’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle, though, and for a few moments in the film we see her content. Then, of course, the real world butts back in, whether it’s by old friends and lovers or new neighbors, it becomes increasingly obvious that she can’t just be herself.

18. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

seven brides

Not only do they move so impeccably and wonderfully, but they also show off the power of the widescreen framing by director Stanley Donen. I love how the camera placement gives more or less weight to one line of men depending on how much influence they have over the women at that point in time. It’s perfect, a match for the cinematic power of Godzilla’s battle scenes.

17. 7 Up (1964)

7 Up

Director Paul Almond gets into the minds of these kids and never rests for too long in one place or on one topic. Jumping around from romance to fights to the difference between poor people and rich people, he gets this diverse group of seven year old British kids to talk about anything and everything.

16. The Ninth Configuration (1980)

9th Configuration

There are long scenes of dialogue and manic action that might be off-putting if they weren’t so well written and fun to watch (everybody here does great work, by the way, acting-wise). It’s written and directed by William Peter Blatty and the guy knows how to do religious and philosophical questioning wrapped up in Shakespeare and Casablanca and Superman.

15. The New World (2005)


Then I could let the words drift in and out of my consciousness as the always beautiful imagery did the heavy lifting. This almost-montage style works best in the opening and closing bits. The beginning introduces us to the people and the world we’ll be inhabiting for the next three hours or so by allowing us to see, say, John Smith walk among the tall grasses that we just saw Pocahontas run joyfully through. They share a sense of wonder, but the performances make it clear that the type of wonder they have is very different. Her’s is almost offhanded, and his is deep and genuine amazement.

14. Planet of the Apes (1968)


Planet of the Apes isn’t trying to be 2001, although the effects are sometimes kinda similar. No, Planet of the Apes has a much pulpier road to hoe, and it does so very entertainingly. While Charlton Heston might have been the wrong choice idealistically, he’s perfect when he’s saying the lines that have become iconic. You get a chill of recognition when you hear him yell, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” but you also get a chill because his pain and terror are so real. Or, maybe real isn’t quite the right word to use here. Not much on the Planet of the Apes is real, excepting maybe the landscapes and horses, but it does have a really fun heightened quality to it.

13. Suspiria (1977)


Holy wow! Those first and last 15 minutes are some of the most spectacular things I’ve seen in a while. The colors, the rain, the architecture, and the creepy creatures all mesh together into two giant monstrous scenes. Fantastic stuff.

12. Memories of Murder (2003)


It is from the director of Mother and The Host, and it shares those films’ mix of humor and genre with a few terrifying scenes (one involving whistling which rivals Zodiac‘s basement visit for tension) which the director balances quite nicely. It’s in the last half, though, as more and more young women are raped and killed, that the movie really gets great.

11. The Rules of the Game (1939)


Renoir, who also plays a pretty major role in the film as the affable but lonely friend to all, makes both a farce and a tragedy out of all of this foolishness. His speedy and lithe camera flits around the giant chateau seemingly on wings rather than in a track, and he rarely cuts away from the master shot for a close up. He’d rather us understand the context of everything, who is watching the goings on from where, and what they think of it all. In this way we are invited to participate in the antics alongside the characters, to empathize with each and every one of them.

10. Wit (2001)


It’s a writers movie, an actors movie, and a directors movie all at the same time. The writing, which gives such wonderful lines to the always brilliant Emma Thompson, reflects the intelligence she is supposed to have as the leading John Donne scholar and weaves the story of a woman dealing with late-stage ovarian cancer in with some thoughts on death, the medical field, and words. As a guy who wants to have some version of this woman’s job later in life, it was an inspiring experience. Emma Thompson is as good as she’s ever been here. Not only does she have to play a 5 year old just learning how to read, she also must embody the pain and suffering a body often endures in the end stages of life.

9. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Mr Hulots Holiday

The scene towards the end of the film where Mr. Hulot and the attractive young girl he has been interested in the whole time dance to it immediately entered my personal pantheon of fantastic dance scenes. It is, like the rest of the film, a really really nice time.

8. United 93 (2006)

United 93

I was too young to get emotional about 9/11 when it happened. All I knew was that it was bad and my shows weren’t happening because of it. Now, thanks to this film, I was able to experience a modicum of the feelings adults were feeling on that day. When the film switches over to the titular plane for the remainder of the running time, I was thrown into a situation I knew about but wasn’t prepared to be immersed in. As such, the last 10 minutes or so, while the passengers were on phones with their loved ones until the end, I was watching through a lens of tears. It’s a profoundly affecting film which achieves such power from playing everything entirely straight.

7. Almost Famous (2000)


The length and lumpy shape of this extended cut feels right for the movie Crowe is making, too, since he is attempting to capture his entire adolescence on screen and make a movie about such a large topic as Rock and Roll (capital letters necessary). The film begins to feel like one of those jam bands of the time, loose and relaxed, playing a note and coming back to it from a different angle to serve a different purpose a few scenes later. The movie doesn’t move, it develops like a Polaroid, kind of all at once and slowly gaining greater contrast and clarity. Only at the end does it really show its full self, a sprawling epic road trip and a simple story about a boy becoming a man.

6. City Lights (1931)


And finally, the love bird tramp. It’s a mode he’s played before and after this film, but this is the pinnacle of its expression so far. The last scene is one of the most tender and sweet scenes I’ve seen in years, and it’s played in a wonderfully subtle way by both Chaplin and his romantic interest, Virginia Cherrill. A touch, a look, and we know all we need to know.

5. The Sound of Music (1965)


Throughout the course of the film, Andrews brought to mind light words. Radiant, incandescent, brilliant, luminous. “The Sound of Music” goes a long way towards defining the character as a dreamer who has trouble telling which way to go and what to do when she gets there. The next song, “Maria,” again defines her in contrast with the strict nunnery she begins the film in. There she is called a flibberty-gibbit and a cloud. Then, after she is sent out into the world we have the third and final defining song, and maybe the best in the lot: “I Have Confidence.” I mean, just how great can a thing be? Andrews starts slow and unsure but becomes convinced by her own words that she has the confidence to go into a scary situation and leave the comfort of the abbey. It’s like a song made specifically for college graduates who have no idea what they’re doing. Or, maybe that’s just how this college graduate saw it. Not only is it a great song, the visuals also seem to push her towards her destiny. Director Robert Wise is smart to employ an increasingly kinetic camera throughout this song as Maria builds her steam and begins to run towards the giant house she’ll be occupying for the rest of the film. It ends with a side tracking shot as Maria runs past the fountain in the driveway and trips for all of her enthusiasm, but picks up where she left off and goes even faster up to the door. Talk about a character introduction.

4. The Innocents (1961)

The innocents

And the movie looks amazing, too. It was filmed in Cinemascope, which gives it a bit of an eerie feeling when watched on a flat screen, but that’s to the good of the film, I think. It also allows the stunning black and white photography to shine, with deep and foreboding blacks revealed by the brightest whites. The super wide screen format makes even close ups feel packed full of background detail. The gorgeous but sinister sets are given their full due thanks to Jack Clayton’s superb direction. The last fifteen minutes or so are spectacularly creepy and, at a point, outright terrifying. The camera whips around and we’re thrown off balance. It’s amazing, one of the best horror films of all time.

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)


I admit to being more than a bit confused in the early goings and I mistakenly believed that to be the fault of the film. In fact, it is actually a highlight. There are three sections to the film and each starts in media res, so it took me up to ten minutes each time to really orient myself in the situation. This feels deliberate, though, as it was almost always at this point that the “war” stuff was over and the character stuff began. I’ve gotten to paragraph three and haven’t even mentioned Deborah Kerr, who plays three roles over the course of the film’s three time periods. The first becomes the model for the following two, as she marries Walbrook and leaves Livesey to realize she’s his perfect woman only after he lets her go. Later, in WWI, he spies a woman who looks and acts just like her in a convent-cum-hospital and later still she plays his army chauffeur. Each role is not quite like the last, but Kerr imbues all of them with a life and verve that befits her 20 years but also a grace that belies them. It’s no wonder that Powell and Pressburger went back to her for Black Narcissus four years later.

2. Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)


This is no straight-down-the-line documentary. It is not a recitation of facts. Instead, it is a portrait of the city, lovingly and not-so-lovingly constructed by the movies set in it. Director Thom Andersen has his opinions about what Los Angleles (never LA) is and isn’t, and he adroitly manipulates the entire history of the city on film to his own ends. If you’re cool with that, you’ll easily get lost within Anderson’s interesting takes on things like the Bradbury hotel and the way Chinatown has become a “secret history” for the city, despite its lack of, you know, factual elements.

1. The Red Shoes (1948)


Everything is big and when even the stuff that’s supposed to be happening in the real world seems like it’s taking place on a stage we go along with it, get wrapped up in it. The technicolor is a wonder, truly one of the best looking films I’ve ever seen, color-wise. The centerpiece is the 15 minute long depiction of The Red Shoes ballet. It starts off pretty normal but Powell and Pressburger don’t settle for just showing what the audience might see. No, instead they use pretty much every cinematic trick available to them in 1948 to make the movie audience understand just how transcendent the dancer and composer are. It’s so, so, so good. This is the movies!

Ok, that’s it for the year in non-new films! I have some fun stuff planned for next year, including a marathon of the two Jaques sets I got for Christmas: Demy and Tati, plus maybe some Spielberg and I’ll finish up my Marathon of the Planet of the Apes. And, of course, whatever comes my way. That’s enough to get me excited about 2015, don’t you think?

Gone Girl (2014)

gone-girl-movie-picture-11-1024x513There’s something rotten in the state of Missouri. Amy and Nick’s picture-perfect marriage has soured and, on the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy has disappeared in a violent manner. Now Nick must try to find his wife before the police begin to suspect that he was the murderer. Gone Girl is, next to Zodiac, the clearest indicator of what interests director David Fincher. It is a movie about the roles we inhabit in order to woo a mate, and what happens when those roles become a reality. It is a long, hard look at the cracks that form when performances start to break down and reality sneaks in.

David Fincher has always been an obsessive (see Zodiac) and a game player (see, uh, The Game). Gone Girl is no different. It’s his funniest movie in a good while – funnier than The Social Network, even – and it’s there that he tips his hand as to what he thinks of all the gaming and plotting and playing that happens over the course of the 2.5 hour run time. It’s all kind of a joke. It’s a joke on the media, which heightens and examines every detail to the point of absurdity, and it’s a joke on marriages, which often force the couple to change for each other in ways that seem fine at first but soon lead to resentment. And, most importantly, it’s a joke on crazy relationship thrillers. It was a popular genre, once, in the glory days of Fatal Attraction and the crazy-dreamy Eyes Wide Shut, and it resurges here with a delightfully nutty third act that tips over into an insane, supremely dark comedy with plenty of bloodshed. Nick and Amy aren’t every-people, made to be held up as the way normals would act in a given situation, they’re cartoonish funhouse mirrors which reflect only our darkest impulses and desires. In the blame game that will be played by most audience members at the conclusion of the film, the finger needs to be pointed in all kinds of directions.


It’s a fun game to play, the blame game, because the rest of the film is so well made that it’s hard to talk about the technical aspects outside of praising them for their perfection. David Fincher is a calculating and exacting director, and it’s no surprise when a flashback to a gift exchange involving sheets cuts immediately to Nick’s sister, Margo (excellently portrayed by Carrie Coon, whom you should all be watching in The Leftovers), setting up certainly less-comfy bedding for Nick on her couch. Fincher never misses a beat and, although the movie is lengthy, it never feels slow nor do any scenes stand out as unnecessary. The praise for this smoothness also goes to Gillian Flynn, who adapts her own novel for the screen and does so in a superb manner. Nothing in the film feels novelistic, everything works cinematically to tell and adapt this story in this medium. Fantastic stuff. It would all be meaningless, though, if it weren’t for Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike giving career-best performances throughout. Affleck is suitably subtle and the not-so-hidden anger under his surface seems always ready to bubble over. Pike is astounding as she uses her soft but firm voice in the narration that dominates the opening hour or so to make us feel all the right emotions. She also uses her physical presence as well as I’ve seen anybody do in the last five years or so. These four are operating at the peaks of their artistic prowess and it all gels fantastically into an astoundingly fun neo-noir movie.