Tag: The Shining

Back Catalog Review: The Exterminating Angel

Exterminating Angel 1

The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

Like a less-overt episode of The Twilight Zone, The Exterminating Angel puts people in a weird situation and then sees what happens before putting a final twist of the knife at the very end. It’s unlike most other movies in that it isn’t super concerned with characters or even a story as such. And for all of its surrealism and absurdity, the events of the film mostly follow logically from one to the next. Everything, that is, except for the first few minutes, which feature the servants in a baroque Spanish mansion trying to leave before the start of a dinner party that will prove to last quite a long time. We see two maids hide in a closet as the group of rich revelers enter the house and go upstairs to the banquet hall. Here the maids see their escape route open, only to have the same set of guests enter and perform the same actions a second time around. It’s your first hint that something is up here and it’s delightful and off-putting at the same time.

(more…)

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

 

Sing Unburied Sing

A year and a half ago I read Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and found within it one of my favorite passages of all time:

Quentin had grown up with that; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts still recovering, even forty-three years afterward, from the fever which had cured the disease, waking from the fever without even knowing that it had been the fever itself which they had fought against and not the sickness, looking with stubborn recalcitrance backward beyond the fever and into the disease with actual regret, weak from the fever yet free of the disease and not even aware that the freedom was that of impotence.

The passage is about a young man growing up in the Reconstruction South where everybody was still obsessed with their “lost cause” and the lengths they went to in an effort to retain their right to own other people. The “back-looking ghosts” are an amazing image for that desire to return over and over again to a battle that was already fought and rightfully lost, and that Quentin is literally constructed as a place to hold these ghosts in the logic of the sentence is something that has stuck with me and will continue to do so. It changed the way I think about ghost stories, the Civil War, the American South, the passage of time, and race. I guess I have been looking for a story that would strike me as much as this one part of a paragraph did.

(more…)

Back Catalog Review: Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket 1

The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

About 2/3rds of the way through Full Metal Jacket I started to think about Paths of Glory. It’s not surprising, both are war films that are critical of war in some ways, and both are directed by Stanley Kubrick. Pretty obvious. I was struck, however, at how differently the two movies see war. This isn’t a case of a director making the same point in a different era. In fact, Kubrick conceptualizes the two wars (WWI for Paths, Vietnam for Full) almost completely differently. In Paths of Glory, his ire is aimed at the higher ups, the generals who rigidly stick to antiquated notions of what a war is and put the footsoldiers into harms way without a care for their humanity. In Full Metal Jacket, that inhumanity infects everybody. Sure, the generals are idiots for getting America into the mire and not doing anything to get us out or change anything, but now the grunts aren’t noble sacrifices to the gods of war, they see themselves as those gods personified. They willingly absolve themselves of their morals in order to fuck and kill their way through a foreign country and its people. Kubrick doesn’t have his characters call Vietnam and the warzones within it “the shit” for verisimilitude, he does it because he sees the US military as covered in the stuff, full of it, or even composed of it.

(more…)

Top 100 Films (2013 Edition): Part 5 of 5

The cream of the crop! See the full list here. Or on Letterboxd.

20. Hoop Dreams

That’s why when somebody say, “when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me”, and that stuff. Well, I should’ve said to them, “if I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.”

Since this list is a yearly tradition and really like using quotes to introduce a movie and I’ve been a big fan of Hoop Dreams since first watching it while I was in college all those years ago, I’ve always struggled to find a variety of quotes for movies that perennially make the list. Especially when a documentary like this one has such a profound and compelling summary of the 3 hours a viewer must invest to see the full stories of the two young basketball phenoms at the center of this film. Those three hours give it room to breathe and consider all facets of their drive to become famous basketball players, including one’s inspirational push for his mother to receive her nursing certification in the film’s best scene. It’s all great.

19. The Exorcist

There are no experts. You probably know as much about possession than most priests. Look, your daughter doesn’t say she’s a demon. She says she’s the devil himself. And if you’ve seen as many psychotics as I have, you’d know it’s like saying you’re Napoleon Bonaparte.

Some great movies are scary and some scary movies are great. This one falls into both categories quite easily. Half family drama and half spectacularly scary horror film, it is a classic for a billion reasons. Just check the set design in those later scenes for a truly tremendous transformation.

18. Raiders of the Lost Ark

What a fitting end to your life’s pursuits. You’re about to become a permanent addition to this archaeological find. Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.

If Jaws is Spielberg being perfect technically and Jurassic Park his attempt at proving that movie magic exists, Raiders is him simply having a blast. It is the cinema’s most fun film. Again, I got to see this on the big screen this year and it was a great experience. It’s old and new, an exciting throwback to the serials of the 30s and 40s with some slick writing and Spielberg’s propulsive style carrying anything Harrison Ford can’t lift on his own (which, it turns out, isn’t much).

17. Miller’s Crossing

All in all not a bad guy – if looks, brains and personality don’t count.

Miller’s Crossing is much closer to the fast paced dialogue of something like the Howard Hawks Scarface than it is the Brian De Palma version of that film. It concerns itself with seedy people at least pretending to be upstanding citizens, double and triple crosses, and some excellent machinegun fire to go along with the motormouths in the cast. It’s a credit to the film that it is steeped in a genre that I generally hate and still it maintains a spot in my top 20 of all time. Of course, the Coen brothers have a large part to play there, focusing on the inherent silliness of organized crime and emphasizing that the violence they perpetrate is ultimately quite stupid. “Nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.”

16. The Sixth Sense

And the tiny hairs on your arm, you know when they stand up? That’s them. When they get mad… it gets cold.

I guess I had forgotten how great this movie is until I rewatched it this year. What had faded in my memory was the emotional impact outside of the obvious ghost stuff and the thing that everybody talks about with this movie. Those are important, sure, but it’s the mother-son relationship that catapults this film so high on my list. The scene when Cole and his mother, played marvelously by Toni Collette, are stuck in traffic and Cole finally confesses his ability to see ghosts is garanteed to make you cry. It becomes a conversation about death and the difficult roles mothers must play in their kid’s lives. It’s a truly beautiful scene, one which lifts the otherwise great movie into near-masterpiece status.

15. The Iron Giant

Sorry about the crowbar, kid. You’d be surprised how many people want to steal scrap. But, man, once I make it into art, I can’t give it away. I mean, what am I? A junkman who makes art or an artist who sells junk? You tell me.

You may notice a trend as we get closer and closer to my number one: the films become a little less think-y and a little more feel-y. It’s not on purpose and it’s not to say that this film or the examples still to come are dumb, of course, but they are often more concerned with making you feel something than making you think about something. Movies have a unique ability to do that with not only words but also images and sounds, combining the strengths of books, photography, and music into one super-powered medium for making the audience feel what the filmmakers want them to. And as a work of feelings, few are as good at making me feel happy and sad at the same time as The Iron Giant which features a great vocal performance from Vin Diesel as an alien robot guy who must try to understand people or pay the ultimate price.

14. The Shining

Do you have the slightest idea what a moral and ethical principle is? Do you?

The feeling Stanley Kubrick is trying to get us to feel while watching The Shining can best be described as an unsettled, primal fear. There are forces at work here, including the strange geography and the power of alcohol to mess up a man faster and more thoroughly than nearly any other thing, which go beyond the ghosts that inhabit the Overlook Hotel. Though those are scary, too. It’s pretty crazy how the majority of the film contains very little in the way of actual scares, only the events in room 237 and some brief visits from those poor, bloody young girls qualify as typical horror stuff in the first two hours of this film. But those two hours are still deeply off-putting thanks to the near constant score which keeps the audience perpetually on the edge of their seats and Kubrick’s masterful compositions. It’s a simple family in the process of breaking apart story with trappings of psychological horror and pitch-black comedy (see: Dick Halloran). And those last 15 minutes are the scariest things in all of movies.

13. The Searchers

Well, Reverend, that tears it! From now on, you stay out of this. All of ya. I don’t want you with me. I don’t need ya for what I got to do.

The old west isn’t as lush as the Irish hills in The Quiet Man but The Searchers is no less starkly beautiful for it. It’s a harsh land and people must be harsh to survive it. John Wayne is atypically sad throughout this film, though he disguises it with anger and unwavering dedication. To save his family he must be alone, an idea echoed in the final shot and foreshadowed in the early goings. Wayne isn’t a good guy here as his racism belies his war hero past. Of course, as Zero Dark Thirty reminded us last year, depiction doesn’t equal endorsement and Wayne’s character is clearly shown to be an outsider in the slowly civilizing society of the old west.

12. Princess Mononoke

Ah, you’re awake. I was hoping you’d cry out in your sleep, then I would have bitten your head off to silence you.

Princess Mononoke appeals to so many of the things I like in films. It creates a fantastically detailed world which feels real and vibrant at the same time, steeped in traditional Japanese culture and ideas about industrialism. It’s a mythic story which concerns itself seriously with gods and monsters and forest spirits alongside iron forges and the development of advanced war machines. But it’s the smaller things, the kodama pictured above and the peaceful woodlands that are portrayed so specifically and wonderfully which make this movie so great.

11. Lucky Star

I guess you can make somethin’ outta just about anythin’, can’t you?

The third Frank Borzage film on this list is his best one. Lucky Star is Borzage at his melodramatic peak, a place where love rules all and can make even the worst of situations into a chance for magic to happen. The dresses, the amazing set design and cinematography, and the super fantastic performances from Janet Gaynor  (also great in the more popular but less awesome Seventh Heaven) and Charles Farrell combine wonderfully into this simple, silent tale of love and loss and, ultimately, snow. Best ending ever? Perhaps.

10. Blade Runner

It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?

Ok, maybe that last statement was a bit rash. Roy Batty’s final monologue is one of the best ever written for the screen and goes a long way towards cementing this film as an all time classic. Of course, the rest of the movie helps there, too, with its wildly inventive future-noir look – neon lights and a constant rain/fog combo – and compelling story involving hunting down androids that just want to be treated like real people. It’s got all kinds of existential questions (a theme you’ll see popping up throughout the top ten movies on this list) plus some pretty great action scenes. There’s not much better than Blade Runner.

9. There Will Be Blood

There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone.

There are two levels, at least, going on here and each informs the other in fantastically intricate ways. The first is the historical battle between commerce and religion for the soul of society at large. These are embodied in the skins of Daniel Plainview, the ruthless and relentless oil tycoon, and Eli Sunday, a young preacher trying to bring his own twisted version of Christianity to the wild west. As money and faith duke it out we get the second layer, the portrait of a deeply flawed but somehow admirable man (Plainview) who must figure out who he is and what he actually wants from life. Unlike most films, it’s not exactly a pretty end to that part of the story. The stark beauty of the turn of the century west provides a perfect background to all of these elements, ensuring that nothing is hidden from its harsh winds for too long.

8. Pan’s Labyrinth

The captain has been so good to us… Please, Ofelia, call him father. It’s just a word, Ofelia, just a word.

Those of you who have been following this list as it evolves from year to year probably aren’t surprised to see any of the last 5 or 6 entries on this list, but their placement might be a bit of a shock (as much as this kind of thing can be shocking). For the longest time Pan’s Labyrinth was my number two film of all time and deservedly so. Its artful melding of the real and fantastic, wars and fairy tales, is only one of the multitudes of reasons why this film is so great. Guillermo del Toro moves his camera so fluidly and purposefully that we feel like we’re being carried along by the story rather than just told it. It should be noted that this 6-spot drop isn’t because I love it any less, I just grew in appreciation for some other films.

7. Inglourious Basterds

It seems I’ve created a monster. A strangely persuasive monster.

Not only is this movie more entertaining than any other in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre so far, it’s also the deepest by a very long shot. His typically talky scenes often frustrate as we want to get to the bloody action quicker but here they speak volumes about the power of cinema and stories and spectacular showcases for the best cast he’s ever had. It’s a nutty propaganda movie about propaganda and revenge fantasies overflowing with historic and filmic references as he so often likes to do. The climax is an amazing confluence of these ideas and supremely bloody violence. It’s everything I want from a World War II movie.

6. Where The Wild Things Are

There were some buildings… There were these really tall buildings, and they could walk. Then there were some vampires. And one of the vampires bit the tallest building, and his fangs broke off. Then all his other teeth fell out. Then he started crying. And then, all the other vampires said, “Why are you crying? Weren’t those just your baby teeth?” And he said, “No. Those were my grown-up teeth.” And the vampires knew he couldn’t be a vampire anymore, so they left him. The end.

So many coming of age movies on this list! I guess it just appeals to me, that transition into becoming who you’re going to be is one which can only really be appreciated in retrospect and movies give us a great way to transport back to those moments for a few hours at a time. This one is filled with imagination and uses the classic children’s book as a jumping off point rather than a blueprint. At its time of release there was some talk about whether a kid would actually enjoy this movie. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know I love the hell out of it with all of its melancholy and anger and beautiful happiness.

5. Magnolia

I lost my gun today when I left you and I’m the laughingstock of a lot of people. I wanted to tell you. I wanted you to know and it’s on my mind. And it makes me look like a fool. And I feel like a fool. And you asked that we should say things – that we should say what we’re thinking and not lie about things. Well, I can tell you that, this, that I lost my gun today – and I am not a good cop. And I’m looked down at. And I know that. And I’m scared that once you find that out you may not like me.

I think I’ve identified most with Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) in this movie. He’s just a guy trying to do the right thing, perhaps a little blind to the darker elements of his surroundings and shy. This quote, outlining his faults in his rambling and oversharing fashion, is a really fantastic portrait of the man. But the best part is how it’s put up against Claudia Gator’s own failings and triumphs. This 3+ hour film has 8 or 9 main characters and each is slowly fleshed out so that the climax can bring them together in unexpected and potentially insane ways. Any movie that can get Tom Cruise to feel as vile as he does here and then twist that into a fascinating relationship between a father and a son is one that will always be special.

4. Black Swan

Because everything Beth does comes from within. From some dark impulse. I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch. So dangerous. Even perfect at times, but also so damn destructive.

Aha! I think any movie that has occupied my top 4 or so has been bumped down a few spots at this point, so here at the very peak we have some fresh faces. When I first saw Black Swan I really liked it. As time has passed I’ve continued to think about it, there’s a kind of insidious simplicity to it that turns a pretty basic story of obsession and perfection into a movie about art itself, and what artists would do to achieve greatness. It’s also a pretty rocking horror film, full of frightening imagery and psychologically unsettling touches that worms it further and further into masterpiece territory. Have we talked about endings enough here? Not yet! This one is a spectacular example and at once inevitable and surprising.

3. Take Shelter

You think I’m crazy? Well, listen up, there’s a storm coming like nothing you’ve ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it.

If it weren’t for the next two movies on this list I’d be able to declare this the best family movie I’ve ever seen. That isn’t to say it’s a movie for families. I don’t think children will really enjoy the psychological horror that the father’s dreams portray nor will they understand the destruction they portend. But as a portrait of a family only two films top it. Michael Shannon gives an all-time great performance as a father struggling with keeping his family afloat amid a sea of bills and potential mental illness. Or are his visions which spur him into creating an underground shelter more than just dreams and is he a modern day Noah? The film is ambiguous when it comes to answering that question, but nobody can doubt that he and his wife (Jessica Chastain in a more down to earth portrayal than the same year’s Tree of Life) will meet the storm – real or metaphysical – together.

2. Moonrise Kingdom

Poems don’t always have to rhyme, you know. They’re just supposed to be creative.

Last year, the year Moonrise Kingdom came out, it roared onto my list at around the 50 spot. This year it takes a similar jump, all the way up to the penultimate spot. If you told me three years ago that a Wes Anderson movie would be my second favorite of all time I’d tell you to shut up with your lying lies. Impossible! Possible! All it took was a visit to the local theater to bask in Moonrise Kingdom‘s studied quirk. Critics often use that word and its variants (quirky, mostly) as an insult but with Wes Anderson it is more of a statement of purpose. He’s bringing his distinct point of view into the world of cinema and doing it with a nearly unmatched sense of artistry and detail. He likes broken families and this film is no different. Sometimes our families aren’t perfect and it is in those moments that we must rely upon friends and romances for our stability. This movie makes the point delightfully and thoroughly.

1. Fanny and Alexander

Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world.

I already wrote a twoparter post about this movie and why it’s my new number one, so go read those for a detailed explanation. For those that don’t want to read the nearly 3,000 words there, know that it’s a movie that hits each and every one of my buttons, has a fantastic Christmas celebration and a few horror elements, and is as comprehensive a family movie as I have ever seen. Good parents and bad parents and good parents gone bad, children coping with the world shattering changes they can’t avoid, and plenty of stuff about storytelling in the middle of it all. It’s glorious.

And that’s all folks! Another year and another list. This one was a bit of a shakeup and I like that a lot. It’s as much a list about me as it is about the movies on it and since I’ve changed in the past year I think my list should as well. Have anything to say? Do so in the comments! And stick around, the big movie season is just beginning.

Insanity Necessary: An argument for going all out

At the beginning of one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters we are treated to maybe the craziest thing anyone will see in theaters this year. Respected actors like Russel Crowe and Michael Shannon are dressed up in super-nuts outfits and barge in on a council meeting of people with silly hats to argue about eugenics. After a quick fight, Crowe jumps on the back of a giant four-winged beast and flies back to his house to witness the birth of his child, the first naturally born and conceived child on his home planet in ages. While all of this is happening, a battle rages outside among a planet that seems to be exploding at all times. It was crazy, it was weird, and I loved it. Man of Steel didn’t end up being a great movie, but it did succeed, at least early on, in doing what too few movies are brave enough to do: trying whole-heartedly to just do something.

All too often I have a moment of clarity while watching a movie. Most recently, The Purge came to a tipping point, a time when the narrative could go one way or another, and the movie’s success felt like it would live or die based on what the writer and director (the same person in this case but not always) decided would happen. In The Purge, a doorbell rings and the locked down family is brought into the moment, the beginning of the rest of the movie. The identity of that doorbell ringer will shape what kind of film the rest will play out as. Will it be a deeply cynical, biting social commentary where neighbors that smile in your face during the day turn into ruthless, jealous killers at night? Or will the ringer be revealed as just some guy, a less biting, less interesting choice which punts the potential of the film on third and one? Well, unfortunately, it’s the latter. The Purge goes from potentially great to boringly normal. Subpar, even, though that lies more on the lack of skill behind the camera than it does on the premise of the film. The Purge was never going to be a masterpiece given how poorly it was made, but it could have been a messterpiece, a movie which, as its most admirable quality, can claim that at least they were doing something. Trying something, giving it all they’ve got. I appreciate craziness, I appreciate insanity.

A few of my favorite messterpieces include Thirst, which melds uber-violent vampire things with wacky slapstick stuff and one of the silliest, most beautiful endings of the past decade, Synecdoche, New York, a movie that takes about a billion threads and tries to weave some of them into a truly emotional epic and mostly succeeds, and The Night of the Hunter, a mashup of a whole mess of techniques and styles that nonetheless congeals into a moving fairy-tale about growing up and being pure at heart. All of these movies are on my current top 100 list of all time, alongside other messterpeices like The Shining, Magnolia, and Brazil. None of these films lack ambition, though they might not quite reach what they’re grasping for. I will always give the edge to a movie that’s going for something with all of its heart over a movie that plays it safe with any kind of subject matter. This generally will reward genre movies as they often have a bit more leeway in terms of what they can go for and even more leeway as to what the audience will forgive. But serious dramas can go crazy with the best of them. The Lion in Winter doesn’t do a whole lot in the directorial department but the dialogue and the glee with which the actors say their lines is so delightfully over-the-top that I can’t help but fall under its spell of deceit and family politics. Punch-Drunk Love takes the patented Adam Sandler man-child and throws him into the real world where his immaturity helps him fall in love with a girl and endangers his life when a mattress salesman goes bananas at him. The Truman Show has a lot of logistical problems and plot-holes when you think about the situation for a while, but the power of the film and its crazy premise overpowers those nits and becomes something great. Again, all of these films are in my top 100 list. I just love a movie that aims high, even if it doesn’t reach its lofty target.

There are a few movies in my top 100 that are restrained, content to be the best that they can be. I’d put movies like Days of Heaven and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Raiders of the Lost Ark in that category, all of which might go all out for a scene but generally keep their ambitions close to their vests. It’s perfectly fine to do so. Last year Lincoln was one of my favorite films even though it was pretty much just a straight biography. But movies like The Cabin in the Woods and Cloud Atlas and Holy Motors occupy a greater amount of my thinking about last year’s films, and are the first titles that come to mind over the more staid films of the year. It’s something almost intangible, and I know that there are people out there that just prefer to have their movies be what they are and then be done. But why go to the cinema to see something you can outline in advance? What purpose do movies have if not to surprise us in their stories or their techniques or their ideas about life? Even today’s safest bets, superhero movies, are embracing the absurd. The opening of Man of Steel is just the most recent in a list of superhero films breaking out of the mold and becoming crazy. Thor: The Dark World had a trailer debut today and looks to capitalize on the biggest strength of the previous film, its sense of humor and high drama. Thor was peppered with Shakespearian dialogue and wacky outfits and canted angles and surreal sets. It’s the craziest of Marvel’s movie universe splinters and I can’t wait to see what happens next.