Thursday, February 10, 2005

Best Lists

Ever since graduating from college, I’ve gotten together with my film professor and a group of his other film-buff students for an annual “List Party.” We eat a big dinner and then share our top-ten movie lists of the past year (here's one of them from this year). Some people might think that this is anal, obsessive, pretentious, or boring, but, for me at least, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Most importantly I get to spend an evening with some of my best friends, whom I don’t see often enough. But, added to that, our lists are a catalyst for wide-ranging and free-wheeling discussions about movies in particular and art in general.

Now, I know some people balk at the very idea of “Top-Ten Lists”. They may be philosophically opposed to making the kind of hierarchical value judgments these lists imply. They might feel that, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, these lists are useless and basically arbitrary. Or they might simply find the whole “Best List” genre uninteresting.

Over the years, I’ve seen many paid movie critics preface their best lists with a preemptive defense to these various anti-list arguments. I’m not really sure that this kind of apologia is really necessary, since most people like reading these kinds of lists, even if they recognize (on some level) that “Best Lists” are, by their nature, somewhat arbitrary and incomplete. But if I had to defend the whole list-making process, I’d say that you should approach a list as the starting place of a discussion and not as the final say on the matter. As an analogy, saying about a movie that “Roger Ebert liked it” might be a fun way to start a conversation about the movie’s merits, but it would be a very lame way to try to end one.

But what about writing a best list? I mean, while it might make sense for a professional paid movie critic to make up these kinds of lists, why would someone like me spend time on one? An inflated sense of self-importance? Some kind of compulsive disorder? Well, maybe, but, even if that’s so, these would still be my rationalizations:

1. In the context of the annual “List Party”, I like writing up a “Best List” for social reasons. I have fun arguing about movies with my film buff friends. For me, part of the whole “art experience” will always include the conversations that it generates.

2. From a practical standpoint, my “Best List” makes it really easy to recommend movies to friends and relatives. This may sound kind of pompous, but because I (a) was a cinema studies student and (b) watch a lot of movies people who know me often (1) ask me which movies they should see or (2) ask me what I think of their most recent favorite. (After (2) happens enough, they usually stop with the (1)).

3. I like making a “Best List” because it gives me a kind of snapshot of my take on movies, and, more generally, art, at a specific time.

Even though it sounds pretty hokey, looking at all the yearly best lists I’ve made gives me some idea of how I’ve “grown” as an amateur/academic film critic. It lets me see not only how my taste has changed, but, more importantly, how I’ve become a lot more comfortable with expressing my own likes and dislikes.
When I first got out of college, I tried too hard to measure movies against an objective standard, and I ended up putting movies on my list that I really didn’t like, but thought that I should. And when I was in grad school, I tended to make up abstract principles to support my preferences. (For example, when I was going through my “Manny Farber” phase, I claimed that the movies I liked “explored spatial issues in an interesting way”).

Now, I just make a list of the movies I enjoyed the most during the year, and I try to rank them based more on how much pleasure I get from watching them rather than on how well they live up to an idealized standard or illustrate a theoretical idea about film. Another way to put it is that the rules I use when making up a list have become a lot more ad-hoc than they used to be. I still put a lot of thought into how to best go about ranking movies, but I’ve decided that it isn’t a problem that I really need to solve. (Maybe Aaron Haspel will come up with an equation for it, once he’s done explaining the human condition). I’ve settled on a basic rule of thumb, though: the less dread I have of seeing a movie again and the more psyched I get about recommending it to a friend the higher I’ll rank it. Mostly I just try to be honest.

It might be that I’m projecting my own flaws onto other people, but one of my big problems with lots of “Best Lists” by professional and semi-professional movie critics is that they hardly ever seem like a truly honest catalogue of the critic’s favorite movies. Too much of the time, these lists read like they were made up to appeal to a certain audience or to make a point. It seems to me that a lot of movies end up on these lists not because critics liked them, but because they feel the movies are worthy in some way.

A movie’s “worthiness factor” is not necessarily dependent on its having an uplifting theme (although this is a favorite among mainstream critics): it might be that the movie has the right politics or takes a courageous stand on a cultural issue, or the movie might be seen as “artistically” worthy because it pushes the boundaries of the medium, or its worthiness could be related to insider Hollywood industry issues.

A close relative to the “worthy” movies that show up on a lot of these lists are the admirable movies. “Admirable” movies tend to look pretty good from a purely intellectual point-of-view, but are almost completely devoid of any pleasurable moments. These movies very often make interesting discussion pieces, but you’re likely to get passionate about them.

Finally, there’s the impressive movies. These are the ones whose technical achievement is praiseworthy, but are neither pleasurable nor interesting.

Of course, a counter-argument to my carping might be that the critic isn’t supposed to simply make a list of favorite movies, but is supposed to make a list of the “best” movies. In that case, the problem isn’t that these critics aren’t being honest with their list-making, but are trying to make up their list based on some semi-objective standards of worthiness, admirableness, and impressiveness. And, though this is a completely personal judgment call, I prefer an honest list of likes and dislikes to a list that tries to hew to everyone else’s idea of what makes a good movie.

Anyway, all this is really just an excuse to post my own best list for the past year. It is not an official “Top Ten” list because it has 14 movies on it, which was a completely arbitrary choice on my part. I could have easily expanded it to 15 or I could have cut it off after the tenth slot. If you are a purist, you can scroll down past the first four entries. This list was a little harder to make than most of my previous ones. I only saw two movies that really, truly blew me away, and they easily earned the top spots. However, I saw a lot of movies that I thought were very fine, and so the rest of the movies on the list are ranked somewhat arbitrarily. If you don’t enjoy reading this list, then I hope you will at least have fun chuckling at some of my choices.

The Forager’s Fourteen Favorite Films for ‘04

14. The Dreamers: This movie has a lot going against it: it features an incestuous love triangle, it romanticizes “the Sixties” (specifically, Paris in 1968), and, perhaps most damning, it is not only “about” movies but also “about” people who love movies. Actually, I’ve never really had a problem with movies about movies, but for some reason whenever someone makes a movie about movies there will always be a bunch of critics who complain that there are too many movies about movies and that filmmakers should just stop it. (Literary critics often make similar complaints about writers, i.e., that writers should never write about writing because only other writers will find it interesting. I think both these rules are bunk. While it might be true that there are people who are bored by movies about movies or writing about writing, your average movie about movies or writing about writing is not likely to be much worse than your average movie about something other than movies or writing about something other than writing.) But to get back to The Dreamers, despite its flaws, I thought it was pretty sexy and that Bernardo Bertolucci’s direction was nice and lively. Most of all, I liked how Gilbert Adair’s screenplay played an Ibsenian twist on the innocent abroad genre. (Spoiler: In this case, it’s the decadent but still innocent Parisian twins whose idyllic life is shattered by the more down-to-earth, commonsensical American). Unfortunately, though the young actors all look very nice, none of them gives much of a performance. The movie is probably a little too silly for most critics to take seriously, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it.

13. Before Sunset: Perfectly structured and perfectly acted, this was one of my favorite “relationship” movies of last year. However, most of my film buff friends seemed to rate this movie a lot higher than I did: at our “List Party” three people had it in the number one slot and two others had it right up near the top. I liked it a lot, but found it a little, I don’t know, narrow. Perhaps a better way to put it is that this movie felt like a perfect short story and my own preference/prejudice is for the more “novelistic”.

12. Shaun of the Dead: I absolutely love zombie movies and I thought this parody/satire was spot on. A lot of people have interpreted the original Dawn of the Dead as a satire on consumerism. The problem, as my friend Mark Dellelo has said, is that if it is a satire, it isn’t funny. At all. Actually, I think the anti-consumerist reading of Dawn of the Dead is pretty thin. Even if that is what George Romero intended, what gives the movie its juice is the feeling of being under siege in what should be a completely sterile, non-threatening environment. Shaun of the Dead not only conveys this feeling, but adds on a satire of contemporary middle class life, and, more importantly, makes it all funny. The movie’s also kind of moving in a standard Hollywood learn-to-face-your-fears-and-become-a-better-person way. Many critics have said that the movie runs itself into a corner and makes a mistake by turning into “straight” zombie movie by the end, but I had no problem with this because, like I said, I absolutely love zombie movies.

11. Spartan: The Bourne Supremacy was a better made political thriller, but I liked Spartan better because it’s really a caper movie masquerading as a political thriller. If I were in a pretentious mood, I might write that Spartan suggests that politics is really a matter of hiding capers from the public. Actually, that might be what writer/director David Mamet thinks, and though that strikes me as bullshit policy analysis, it makes for a pretty good movie. Anyway, Spartan has capers coming out the wazoo. The bad guys are trying to pull off their capers, the good guys are trying to pull off their capers, and the ambiguous thought-they-were-good-but-oops-looks-like-they’re-not guys are trying to pull off their capers. There’re lots of scenes of tough guys planning capers and lots of scenes of tough guys pulling off capers and lots of scenes of tough guys reacting to their capers going all FUBAR. I’m almost tempted to say that the movie’s only problem is that it lacks a sense of humor, but after repeated viewings I think that even if David Mamet script and direction are a little too serious, Val Kilmer’s performance—especially his line readings—has moments of near absurd black comedy. Some day, I hope that someone will turn one of the great Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) “Parker” novels into a great movie. Until then, I’m willing to settle for stuff like Spartan, which has almost all the pieces.

10. Spider-Man 2: I don’t really have too much to say about this movie, partly because it has already been praised up and down the blogosphere. This was my favorite of the big budget American adventure movies, although I also enjoyed The Incredibles, Hellboy, and National Treasure. I liked this better than the Harry Potter movie, too, although, from a purely “objective”-analytical standpoint I can see how Prisoner of Azkaban is the better made film. For me, the choice between a flawed Spider-Man movie and a near perfect Harry Potter movie really rests on the fact that I’m a huge Spider-Man fan and I don’t really care about Harry Potter. I’m sure this violates some kind of rule of film criticism, i.e. the critic must treat each movie on its own terms and as its own creature, but I’ve often had trouble doing this. For example, one of my favorite movies of the past few years is Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People. However, I know that people who don’t know and/or care too much about the Manchester music scene of the 1980s aren’t likely to find the movie all that comprehensible, let alone enjoyable. Luckily, this is my list and the only place it will be published is on my blog, and, since I am an adult, I get to make up all my own rules: so Spider-Man 2 gets spot #10 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban appears not at all.

9. Dawn of the Dead: Did I mention I absolutely love zombie movies? And though this might be considered sacrilegious in certain hardcore horror movie buff circles, I have to admit that I prefer this remake to Romero’s original. Don’t get me wrong: I think George Romero is just great. Night of the Living Dead is completely worthy of its classic status, Day of the Dead has one of the greatest single shots in the history of horror films, and his low rent vampire movie Martin, which feels like it’s a collaboration between Val Lewton and Flannery O’Connor, might be my all time favorite fright flick. However, Romero’s Dawn has always struck me as having two major flaws: it is too long and it is pretty badly acted. Actually, neither one of those flaws would be a problem by itself, but the combination is a real killer. This remake solves those problems: the script by James Gunn is a lot sharper and the cast does terrific ensemble work. Some people might complain that the remake “Hollywoodizes” the original—they might miss the original’s sparseness and low key creepiness. They might find the remake too revved up and gimmicky. That’s a fair enough criticism—the remake is pushy and insistent in a way that the original isn’t—but the remake adds a whole lot more nuance and, in general, better explores the central issue of all zombie movies, which is: can a given group of people manage to get their act together after the arrival of the zombies has triggered an apocalyptic breakdown of social rules or will they lose their shit and get eaten? No movie more thoroughly answers this question than the remake of Dawn of the Dead.

8. Infernal Affairs: Despite what aficionados of Asian Cinema will tell you, Hong Kong movies are no better than Hollywood movies. In fact, the average Hong Kong movie is probably worse than the average Hollywood movie, for two reasons: (1) Hong Kong movies tend to be made on the cheap and (2) Hong Kong movies tend to be made really quickly. This might sound funny to someone who thinks all Hollywood movies are garbage, but the truth is that Hollywood has better quality control than the Hong Kong film industry. However, Hong Kong has Hollywood beat, hands down, when it comes to one important factor: they’ve got better movie stars over there. Real movie stars—not the pretty boys and cutesy girls-next-door who’d look right at home in a shampoo ad that we’ve got in America, but honest-to-God, pack-‘em-in-the-seats-and-watch-their-jaws-drop movie stars. And Infernal Affairs has two of Hong Kong best movie stars in dueling lead roles, but it also gives them something you hardly ever find in a Hong Kong movie: a really terrific screenplay.

7. The Aviator: On paper, this is one of those movies that looks like it shouldn’t even be able to get off the ground, weighed down by its own big-time biopic ambitions. But somehow, Martin Scorsese makes it fly. And fly it does: this was the shortest three hours I’ve spent at the movies in a long time. This is one of those movies that is more than the sum of its parts, especially because, on close inspection, those parts don’t look so great. For example, scene-by-scene, John Logan’s screenplay is full of shit, but its overall structure, weaving all the disparate strands of Howard Hughes’s life together, manages to solve one of the biggest problems facing anyone writing a biopic. And, scene-by-scene, I don’t think I once bought Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, but I thought the movie needed Leo’s light touch a lot more than some kind of weighty Sean Penn-esque method performance. Mostly, this is a tribute to Martin Scorsese, who seemed to make the whole thing work by magic.

6. Son Frere: Son Frere is the kind of movie that a lot of movie critics praise for its “intimacy” but don’t hold that against it. The set-up is straightforward: a man dying of a rare blood disease asks his estranged brother to help care for him during his final days and the two end up having the confrontation that they had been avoiding for so long. This is a “what has dying taught us about living” movie, but its extremely low-key and not at all insistent—very Claire Denis. And the actors give my favorite type of performances—the ones where they never seem to be doing anything, but you can’t help believing completely in what their characters are going through. Son Frere has the best naturalistic filmmaking I saw all year.

5. Hotel Rwanda: I don’t give a movie points just for tackling a difficult subject, but when a movie comes along that does tackle a difficult subject and manages to pull it off it can be a lot more stunning than other movies which are, perhaps, better from an aesthetic point-of-view. Hotel Rwanda is that kind of movie: the filmmaking isn’t spectacular by any means and the screenplay is far from perfect, but, by telling Paul Rusesabagina’s (amazing) story in a straightforward way, Terry George made the most devastating movie of the year. There’s certainly stuff in the movie that I could quibble about: there’re two particular badly written “blame Whitey” scenes and I don’t buy the screenplay’s overall argument. But those things are easily ignored and, anyway, are pretty minor compared to what the movie does achieve: an honest, eye-level view of the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, that, for the most part, doesn’t get preachy or try to hold your hand.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Charlie Kaufman managed to write the greatest Philip K. Dick movie ever, even though it’s not actually based on something Dick wrote. Most of the “official” Dick movies take one of his clever ideas and try to build a huge action movie monstrosity around it. The Dick idea seems to be there mainly to give the filmmakers a nice story hook for their pitch meeting and so that they can tell people that their movie is “about” some kind of pseudo-intellectual-sounding theme. But Eternal Sunshine, like Dick’s best work, is thoroughly low-rent. In Dick’s stories the future doesn’t look like Tomorrowland at Disneyworld—it looks like Hoboken (or, more appropriately, one of those California suburbs I’ve never been to). Now, I don’t think that this is a profound movie, but I do think that (a) Kaufman’s screenplay is cleverly put together, smart about relationships, and, most importantly, very touching, (b) Michel Gondry hits exactly the right tone of subdued melancholy, and (c) the actors all give performances that fit perfectly into the rest of the movie. Oh yeah, it’s also one of the best movies about the messiness and pain of building a relationship after the falling-in-love part is over.

3. Sideways: Sideways was this year’s critics’ darling, so it’s no surprise that it turned into a target for critical backlash. I think backlash can be a very useful, and, in this case, I think the backlash was warranted (even if most of it was essentially wrongheaded, not to mention, a little extreme). Why? Because although I really liked Sideways—liked it so much, that it is, in fact, my third favorite movie of 2004—I think it is a modest, no-big-deal kind of movie, that isn’t likely to appeal to everyone (my grandmother didn’t like it, for example). Sideways isn’t a knock-your-socks-off experience: it has lots of little pleasures, but it really doesn’t have any huge, defining moments. (This is kind of what I felt about the movie year in general: lots of things I liked, but not much that I was blown away by). However, I would like to address what I think is a particularly strange aspect of the Sideways backlash: A.O. Scott’s claim that movie critics overpraised the movie because these critics really related to the schlubby, somewhat elitist main character. Well, first of all, what’s wrong with that? Aren’t we supposed to respond to art that we can relate to? Everyday moviegoers certainly tend to like movies that have characters they can relate to, why should critics be immune? A.O. Scott’s criticism seems to rely on there being some kind of objective movie critic standard, which, if it does exist, serves only to make film criticism uniform and boring. Plus, it’s not like there’s all that many films being made that have heroes we schlubby, elitist-types can really identify with. Why shouldn’t we heap praise on one when it comes around? And secondly, the movie doesn’t exactly celebrate the schlubby, elitist main character (in fact, the movie makes him look pretty schlubby, not to mention elitist) and it isn’t like the movie has some big triumph-of-the-nerds-type moment or is secretly a Spider-Man-type power fantasy. Anyways, for whatever the reasons, I’m glad that Sideways got all that critical acclaim for the purely selfish reason that I’d really like to see more movies like it.

2. House of Flying Daggers: I enjoyed the first half of Hero, but then it lost me. I thought that the fight scenes were amazingly made, but that the plot just wasn’t that interesting and engaging. A friend of mine claims that the plot Hero works on an allegorical level, which might be true, but (a) I wasn’t interested in finding it and (b) I don’t much like formalistic, allegorical movies to begin with. Nonetheless, I thought that Hero was probably the most beautifully shot and designed movie I saw all year. I went into House of Flying Daggers expecting the same thing: a distanced but perfectly designed martial arts movie that I would be impressed but left cold by. My expectations, as they often are, were completely thwarted. House of Flying Daggers may not be as impressive as Hero, but it is pretty damn close. More importantly, it has what Hero lacked: an abundance of passion. Hero felt like an exercise in how to stage beautiful fight scenes. House of Flying Daggers also has beautiful fight scenes, but they grow out of and are used to dramatize the relationships between the characters. Hero had a twisty, convoluted plotline, which seemed to exist as a kind of intellectual puzzle, not related to any of the characters. But in House of Flying Daggers, the twists and turns grow out of the characters’ conflicting drives, and there’s an operatic intensity to the whole affair. House of Flying Daggers is wuxia at its finest.

1. A Very Long Engagement: The only, truly knock-out, gut-wrenching, and eye-popping movie experience I had all year was at Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement. As with House of Flying Dagger, I had low expectations for this one based on my cool response to Jeunet’s last film. I thought that Amelie was like the proverbial Buick swatting the proverbial fly: a movie where Jeunet had used just about every possible filmmaking technique that has ever existed in order to tell a very slight story that was just too whimsical for its own good. Though it doesn’t exactly fit into my definition of a “One Note Wonder”, Amelie is a movie that I would have enjoyed quite a bit had it been only 10 minutes long. After watching two hours of it, though, I had overdosed on cute. My fear that A very Long Engagement would be worse: not only cute, but trying to be cute and whimsical about the First World War, which sounded like a very awful idea. But I knew my expectations were completely off-base seconds into the movie: the opening scenes set in the trenches of the Western Front are simply stunning, both from a technical standpoint and in their emotional impact. What truly impressed me about the movie was that not only were the war scenes amazing, but everything else in the movie is equally well done: the romance, the rustic comedy, the mystery. Jeunet’s great achievement is to create a truly unified whole out of so many incommensurate elements. In fact, if the movie has one flaw it is that there are simply too many great things in it: the movie was already at its next jaw-dropping scene before I had fully recovered from the last one. A Very Long Engagement does have its whimsical moments, but these are balanced by its moments of true horror and despair. The only other movie I can really compare it to is Night of the Shooting Stars, which is also a kind of fairy tale set during wartime and also weaves together whimsy with horror. Jeunet’s movie isn’t quite in the same league—it’s a little too busy and a little too satisfied with its own cleverness—but it’s close. For me, A Very Long Engagement is the filmmaking achievement of the year, not just because of its technical brilliance, but because this brilliance is put to use to tell a complex and emotionally engaging story. Nothing else this year really came close to reaching these heights.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#23: Dick Tracy

by Chester Gould

I've said this before and, before I'm through I'll say it again, but it's always a bad idea to a judge a comic by the shadow it casts into the larger realm of pop culture. Just as the actual pages of RAW and Hate! were obscured by their emblematic status, Chester Gould's hard boiled comic strip has disappeared behind a pageant of camp imagery. Today Dick Tracy is remembered mainly for one thing: the title character's two-way wristwatch TV.

Reading Gould's original is a real eye-opener: it's a fast-paced, violent, no-nonsense police procedural that has more in common with Brian De Palma and David Mamet's version of The Untouchables than the lame Warren Beatty movie based on the strip itself.

Gould's Dick Tracy is the ultimate B-picture, with scenes of unrestrained sadism that would make Anthony Mann proud. Acid, whips, and shards of glass join bullets and knives in the arsenal of the criminals who prey on the public and each other. Dick Tracy himself is always willing to shoot first and ask questions later if the situation calls for it.

The strip indulges Gould's fascination with police science and criminology. Tracy uses the most up-to-date techniques to snare the criminals he goes up against: fingerprinting, plaster casts, ballistic tests. Gould spends the time in between action scenes describing these newfangled methods of investigation step-by-step. It's the kind of documentary work that Jules Dassin would be praised for in Riffifi, and, to a certain extent, would characterize procedural dramas like Dragnet and Law & Order.

But the violence and the police work are just part of the mechanics necessary to keep a strip going day after day. What makes Dick Tracy one of the best comics I've ever read is the rightness of Gould's style. Not the master draughtsman that Milt Caniff was, Gould instead concentrated on the more theatrical aspects of comic strips: bold staging and bold caricatures. Each panel looks like it could've been taken from the storyboard of the greatest back-lot Warner's Brother gangster picture ever made.

Gould was one of the great American artists of the street, of the scars the city leaves on those not strong enough to survive there. And though Gould could be sentimental, he was never a romantic, which helps to keep the strip grounded in its own grimy sense of reality. Dick Tracy is the greatest crime comic ever, and I doubt that it'll ever be seriously challenged for that honor (no matter how much Frank Miller tries).