For the month of November Chicago’s Gene Siskel Center is featuring the work of French auteur Claire Denis, capped off with the first run of her new film, Bastards. Most cinephile circles would regard Denis as one of the best contemporary directors working today - a claim I hope to be better informed to discuss by the end of the Siskel Center’s ten-picture run. Having only seen Trouble Every Day and 35 Shots of Rum (films I will revisit during the month), my experience with Denis is clearly limited. Chocolat, Denis’ debut 1988 film, starts the month-long series.Read More
I initially began writing this column before my vacation. Well, that came and went. And while my procrastination on getting this up may suggest otherwise, this is a pretty important column to understand what I look for in films. What this Thursday Ten reflects are the best films released since 1988 – the year I was born. I’m 24 now and things, least of all my cinematic taste, have changed. I keep all ten of the listed films close to the heart. Selecting ten films and arranging them in order ended up being more than I bargained for though, so as an addendum to my formal list, I have also selected ten other films that could’ve easily made an appearance on a different day.
Being the newest and most recent film on the list prompted me to hesitate – perhaps my one viewing of Margaret was deceiving. But it’s a picture that shook me and continues to call upon my attention months after viewing it. My initial critique on the film noted the problematic pacing of its final act, which undoubtedly reflects director Kenneth Lonergan’s problematic production issues. The scarring and misjudged pacing almost works for Margaret’s benefit, as the complex emotional terrain has been given added affect. The way in which the narrative contracts and expands, all the while balancing everything it takes in, is some kind of marvel. With a Blu-ray release coming in early July, which will include both the theatrical and Lonergan’s cut of the picture, I might have a clearer grasp of how I feel about the picture’s eccentricities. As far as I’m concerned though, Margaret’s the most impressive and ambitious film I’ve seen in years.
Only one Stanley Kubrick film was released during my lifetime, and I didn’t even get to see it until almost a decade after its release. While I may have been too young to have seen Eyes Wide Shut on its opening day, I doubt I would have enjoyed it much. It’s a labyrinth of a picture, one so dense in its construction and so oblique in its treatment of human emotions. Shrouded by a sense of mystery, it’s a film that moves at a daydream’s leisure yet carries the anxiety of a nightmare. As Tom Cruise wanders the streets of New York City, succumbing to the sexual insecurities of being a cuckold, we’re transported to a dark yet culturally exquisite underworld that instills fear into its viewer. There’s a mystery in Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s not the one involving Tom Cruise and his exploration of that shady underworld – it’s the mystery of where the lines of reality and dream are drawn.
Recalling classic films like Jean Vigo’s L’Atlante and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge possesses the poeticism and goofiness associated with films of the 30s. It’s a lovely throwback that essentially believes in the more confounding and boisterous aspects of love. It’s both rich in sentimentality and melodrama, as its plot delves into the idea of homelessness being an afterthought - especially if you can just dance along an abandoned bridge while fireworks go off in the background. The Lovers on the Bridge is a film rooted in a reality outside our own, yet attains a certain level of grounded resolve – its intentions are noble in the sense that it makes no grandiose statements on love and its uncertainties. It’s simply tells a simple story of people falling in love.
I saw Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man during my sophomore year of college. Taking a literature and religion course, I was reviewing Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, particularly the Inferno. Watching Dead Man was not part of the course nor did I have any previous expectations that my viewing of the film would correspond to what I was reading. I simply decided to watch the film based on its critically diffusive reputation. What I saw was a film that lingered in its imagery with deft awareness. Richly composed yet formally idiosyncratic, Dead Man not only subverted genre expectations, but also tested formal storytelling techniques. I corresponded this viewing to what I was learning, viewing the odyssey in which Johnny Depp embarked upon as similar to Dante’s descent into the various circles of Hell. When you watch a film at just that right moment, it can certainly leave a last impression – watching Dead Man essentially rocked my impressionable worldview of how films can tell a story.
Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has the benefit of being viewed at two very distinct times in my life. One part of me admired the film while I was in high school, where I viewed the picture as a serendipitous and supernatural take on the pangs of relationships and love. As I distanced myself from the picture, only to rewatch it again during my late college years, the film’s density really shined through. The insight on relationships and the difficulty of extended courtship were still there from my previous viewing, but obviously my ability to relate grew as I got older. Unlike similar films that inspire profundity while a youth only to seem immature as I go back to them (Garden State, for example), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind acknowledges that some moments in life, no matter how many times it happens, will always hurt.
2007 was a pivotal year in shaping my movie palette. It was an impressive year that highlighted an incredible amount of talent. So much of that year’s output has essentially shaped my expectations and readings of contemporary films. The landmark viewing came in 2007 at a midnight prescreening for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The picture, which was considered a bit of a dark horse Oscar contender, was on my radar for most the year as I was going through Anderson’s filmography for the first time. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. With a sold-out crowd in attendance on a snowy Chicago night, I remarked on the contribution that a group collective can have on watching a film. Stunned awe for most of the opening runtime, as not a single character speaks over composer Johnny Greenwood’s score. It’s followed by one of the most bombastic performances in contemporary cinema, as Daniel Day-Lewis embodies Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oilman whose ambitions sustain a film with such unshakable intensity. Eerie in tone and at times absolutely confounding, There Will Be Blood abides by Anderson’s incredible formal elegance while subverting narrative expectations throughout. It’s a much more formal and immaculately crafted film than any of his other films, but at the same time, it’s less human, more rigid and ambiguous in its categorization. That, in itself, sets it apart.
The finer qualities of David Fincher’s Zodiac aren’t just in its precise direction, dense script, or elaborate set design. What Zodiac accomplishes so effectively is its capturing of a universal feeling. Through the obsessive glares of its many characters, the audience navigates through a horrific world. Jake Gyllenhaal embodies the role of an everyman whose festering complacency motivates him to solve a series of gruesome murders. The picture begins and ends with his role in the investigation, but as the everyman, he doesn’t linger on the procedural middle portion. It’s here where our appointed heroes attempt to piece together the various pieces of the puzzle. It’s only with the everyman’s help are they able to get the wheel moving again.
Zodiac, like so many other films that I hold close to the chest, is the sort of film that requires multiple viewings to wholly embrace. Its procedural elements only get more and more interesting with subsequent viewings. And the decade-spanning narrative isn’t immediately appreciated until you understand how time and place play such a significant role to the character’s psyche. Few films capture the obsessive anxiety of a single character – Zodiac achieves this through a macro perspective by empathizing with the boiling anxiety of a city.
When you’re exposed to so many American animated films with their hyperactive lunacy and recycled plots, it comes to a shock to see an animated film that subverts virtually all those qualities. My Neighbor Totoro was my first exposure to Studio Ghibli and remains a pivotal viewing in my life. It’s a film so quiet in actions and careful to the touch. It’s not about obnoxious characters or saving the princess. It takes place in a grounded world, where two girls live on the countryside with their father. The children’s mother is sick and resting in a nursing home. What I just outlined are three distinct aspects foreign to American animation; father’s are not absent figures, parental role models can have ailing health, and two girls can be lead characters. The fantasy elements of the picture are a consequence of the girl’s imagination – they’re not used to motivate the plot in one direction or another, instead, the giant Totoro is utilized as an observer as opposed to a plot point.
Not every film on this list needs to speak to a larger universal truth. Some of these pictures, in particular My Neighbor Totoro, works for being a film that just makes me happy. There’s joy to appreciate in the craft, no doubt, but its simple narrative and visual sights make for an experience of pure delight and enjoyment.
Several films over the past decade have embraced a stream of consciousness approach, where the audience falls for the surreal and poetic qualities of a picture as opposed to a conventional framework. But few films effectively compromise their dreamy qualities with a narrative framework. That’s a quality that is solely accomplished in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique. It’s a film that implicitly tells its story through images, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in a quasi-dreamscape.
Part of the magic of The Double Life of Véronique is that it really doesn’t demand clear cut answers. It’s something that one watches for the feelings it evokes as opposed to a narrative – this framework has no bearing on how compelling the picture is as a whole. Having seen the picture half a dozen times, there are still moments that surprise me. I can recall certain scenes accurately, but I still find myself surprised by the inclusion of particular scenes whenever I return to the film. Like a good dream, you forget crucial details almost immediately after waking up. For a film to accomplish the same through its mysterious elegance is no small feat.
When the idea came up to make this Thursday Ten, what was going to be number one was never up for debate. This just might be my favorite movie ever. For anyone’s favorite films, one can’t help but find a little bit of themselves in what they’re watching. This is kind of an embarrassing admission, provided that Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is an introverted and socially inept person in Punch-Drunk Love. But there are certain traits in Egan that I can’t help but relate to in his quest for love, acceptance, and happiness. These are the sort of traits that most people obviously strive for. But in Punch-Drunk Love, these qualities carry human heft. Despite the weirdness of some aspects of the picture, it still feels incredibly grounded in its observations on people. People get embarrassed, they lash out, and they get scared.
It took a bit for me to fully embrace the film. Like many who go through Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography, I embraced his more explosive films, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia before Punch-Drunk Love. But as I’m drifting away from my teen years, I’ve found renewed admiration for this work. It’s all in the confrontation between Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman – the line “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine” struck me as particularly insightful in my teen years. At least I can attest to that line now.
On Another Day: An Angel at My Table, Everything Will Be Ok, Fargo, Fish Tank, In the Mood for Love, Jackie Brown, King of the Hill, Lost in Translation, Rushmore, The Social Network
Since I’ve shifted my blog to account for my contemporary cinema viewings, I’ve neglected to write about the many films I’ve seen at home. And well, there have been a lot of them. Given that these early months tend to leave a lot to be desired in the cinema, I figured I could introduce a new column that focuses solely on my at-home viewings. I won’t delve too deeply into any particular picture like I do with my Essential Series column, instead I’m just offering a little snip it of the sorts of films I’m checking out nowadays.
With this week’s column, I shifted gears and looked into some newer pictures, stepping out from my 30s cinema project for a moment.
I’ve never read Robert Cormier’s young adult novel, which initially puts me at a disadvantage for accepting the material explored in Keith Gordon’s adaptation. It’s a difficult premise to fully accept, as a young man becomes the subject of bullying and social scrutiny when he refuses to take part in the annual chocolate sale at his private school. There’s an air of implausibility of most of the plot, which involves a corrupted priest exercising capitalist ambitions and a secret tribunal society of privileged students. The surrealist nature of the picture is aided by Gordon’s own directorial presence, which borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. With excellent cinematography from Tom Richmond and sharp editing by Jeff Wishengrad, The Chocolate War is a surprisingly effective display of filmmaking technique. Gordon gives the picture a particularly somber feel. His style and the material operate on very different levels, therein projecting an oddity of a picture in tone. Still, The Chocolate War is a film that subverts expectations and has the formal elegance to make its surrealist material have genuine emotional strength.
My admiration for Pedro Almodóvar’s films started from the moment that I saw Talk to Her a few years ago. And as I watched films like Volver and All About My Mother, I realized that his work speaks to a very specific demographic. I continued to admire his work, but something about it just never wholly clicked for me. That is until I saw 2011’s The Skin I Live In, which utilizes genre tropes to tell an incredibly shocking story. It reignited my passion in the director, as his formal elegance managed to finally coalesce with a narrative that I could really give myself to.
With Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, one of Almodóvar’s earliest works, I see him refining the sort of style that he utilized to great effect in All About My Mother. It’s a colorful film with a compelling cast of character driven by a feminine perspective. Like with Volver and All About My Mother , it doesn’t work for me on a narrative level. But like the aforementioned films, Almodóvar’s ability to structure shots with so much depth is enough to make the film more than its plot lets on. Thematically, the film fits right in with Almodóvar’s oeuvre as a film that sees women trying to overcome masculine restraints. With melodrama to spare, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown can be filed under films that I admire, though don’t embrace.
At two and a half hours, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a perplexing feature. Its opening hour is paced awkwardly. On one level, it bares the sort of visual composition of a Stanley Kubrick film. But with its rapid cuts and moving camera, these images connect under the basic principles of Spielberg’s technique. It’s jarring at first, but as the film progresses, you really do become immersed in the philosophy and ideas that the film provokes. And the density of its material is surprising – there’s a lot to mull over during and after the picture. Among Kubrick’s oeuvre, it’s ranks with 2001: A Space Odyssey in its philosophical musings. But in Spielberg’s hands, he manages to streamline the narrative to make it an incredibly accessible picture. While I’ve often been critical of Spielberg’s work, his ability to tell a simple and compelling story in a straightforward manner is his strongest asset. The problem is that a lot of his stories are straightforward to begin with. It’s only with films where he deals with broader material, particularly Jaws and Close Encounter of the Third Kind, is he able to really impress me.
The film is not without its flaws. The opening and closing sequences, which seem to be the most scrutinized by reviewers, stand as my favorite scenes in the picture. It’s odd how these sequences were initially noted as the Spielbergian influences on the picture, yet they strike me as the sort of decisions that Kubrick would have made. A scene involving Haley Joel Osment laughing at a dinner table felt too abstract for someone like Spielberg to have come up with on his own. It’s the middle sections that I have the most trouble with, as the film’s (well, Spielberg’s) reliance on special effects strike didn’t connect with me. Despite that issue, I found the picture to be a truly refined piece of filmmaking. Labeled as a Kubrick work, it’s about a mid-tier effort. But as a Spielberg effort, this dark, daring, and contemplative picture is his finest film to date.
More effective in theory than execution, They Live makes for an interesting critique on consumerism and class divisions. Professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is effective as a down-on-his-luck working man, who happens to stumble on glasses that allow him to see the subliminal truth beyond advertisements along with discovering that the wealthy aren’t really human at all. The ideas They Live poses are quite compelling, though I found Carpenter and Nelson’s script to be too unfocused and in desperate need of revisions. The film could’ve taken a variety of routes from the onset of Piper discovering the wonder-glasses, from informing his few friends, to going on a rampage, to aligning with a resistance group. And that’s exactly what happens – the script calls for Piper to do all of the above. None of the activities he embarks upon are really fleshed out in a convincing way, which is disappointing, given that the ideas at least show promise if pushed forward. Nevertheless, I enjoyed what the film attempted to do, even if it missed the mark at times. Though I’m still not sure what to think of Piper and Keith David brawling for what seems to be eternity…