Thursday, January 26, 2012

Films 2011

As usual films seen for the first time from January 1 to December 31, 2011.


Alphabetical this year - normally I figure if I'm silly enough to do this at all might as well go all the way but maybe it's time to be only 90% silly.

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish 2011) - Don't know what it says about me that there are two monster-attack films on this list but as pure entertainment nothing I saw was this clever, imaginative or tightly controlled and as social observation it was nearly as strong.

Dillinger e Morto (Marco Ferrri 1969) - I'd never heard of this until Criterion's release but what a stupefying experience. Sometimes starkly controlled and other times almost over-determined but cryptic, elliptical and not quite like anything else.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates 1973) - Yep, I'm a sucker for naturalistic, low-level crime stories and they're actually fairly uncommon in films - this one is even an adaptation from a fantastic novel. This look at a bottom-rung fixer/go-between who slowly gets ground in the gears could easily have been too heavy-handed or, oddly, too dark but there's more going on here than in the handful of episodes of The Wire that I saw.

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach 2010) - Another almost slice-of-life story about a nobody, only this time no crime just a confused, badly adjusted guy trying to make something happen - but the film manages to capture life's confusion and unexpected changes.

The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (Terry Gilliam 2009) - Childish fantasy films like the Lord of the Rings series get the attention but this is the real thing.

Lola (Jacques Demy 1961) - Like its New Wave contemporaries a sharp, not entirely cheerful character study of two people drifting through life - one competely aware of it, the other not.

Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino 2010) - Forget all the spiritual mumbo-jumbo surrounding this film and go for the minimal, nearly blank look at rural life that's either one of the most peculiar documentaries ever made or one of the least story-filled stories. And it boasts probably the most audacious shot I saw this year - a lengthy, single-take gag that I swear is a Tati tribute.

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu 2009) - Odd that a film this visual and where so little happens is actually about language though instead of a dissertation this is more allusive and open - poetic in the deepest sense.

Pontypool (Bruce MacDonald 2008) - And hey another film that's "about language" and in this case it had me laughing out loud even though this isn't a comedy (and the humor was intentional or at least not unintended). Just imagine a Beckett zombie film only this is by Canadians so they're smarter and more human than Beckett ever was.

Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman 2010) - If you don't like it that title is all too descriptive but I'd claim it's a Rivettean hall-of-mirrors and in a way more audacious than Tree of Life. Hellman is one of America's great directors and it's a shame it takes so many years for his films to get made.

The Social Network (David Fincher 2010) - Citizen Kane reimagined for the consumer generation.

The 3 Rs (David Lynch 2011) - A "trailer" for the Vienna Film Festival that borders on self-parody but is just as confusing (and disturbing) as his best work.


American Revolution 2 (Howard Alk & Mike Gray 1969)

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig 2011)

Bug (William Friedkin 2006)

Careful! (Guy Maddin 1992)

Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (Roy Boulting 1959)

Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni 1967)

Deep Red (Dario Argento 1975)

Don't Look Back (Marina de Van 2009)

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy 2010)

Extract (Mike Judge 2009)

Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith 1963)

La Jetee (Chris Marker 1962)

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom 2010)

Monsters (Gareth Edwards 2010)

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard 2009)

Red State (Kevin Smith 2011)

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas 2008)

The Sun's Burial (Nagisa Oshima 1960)

The Tempest (Derek Jarman 1979)

Trollhunter (André Øvredal 2010)

24 City (Jia Zhang-ke 2008)

Va Savoir (Jacques Rivette 2001)

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke 2009)

Winter's Bone (Debra Granik 2010)


Jonah Hex (Jimmy Hayward 2010)

Knight and Day (James Mangold 2010)

Don't Touch the White Woman (Marco Ferreri 1974)

The Room (Tommy Wiseau 2003)

Antichrist (Lars von Trier 2009)

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul 2006)

The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry 2011)

Rubber (Quentin Dupieux 2010)

The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone 2010)

Battle Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman 2011)

Seven Mummies (Nick Quested 2006)

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé 2009)

Top films I didn't see:

Borrowing an idea from another critic who decided to show some of the arbitrariness of this whole process by listing the top films he hadn't seen. I'm only including ones that I would be likely to, well, like - things along the lines of the highly praised Uncle Boonmee or Midnight in Paris seem long shots to me.

A Separation

The Turin Horse

This Is Not a Film

The Artist

A Dangerous Method

Kill List



Another Year

Mysteries of Lisbon

Film Socialisme

Young Adult


Mildred Pierce

Life Without Principle


Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

and I can't imagine where I'd ever get to see Christian Marclay's The Clock (saw his Guitar Drag at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago) but it sounds incredible.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen 2011)

Woody Allen periodically gets "he's back" praise though really he hasn't been back in twenty or so years. Midnight in Paris is the latest trigger for such claims and it's as hard to see why as it has been with any of the previous ones. The film is really nothing more than a Twilight Zone episode complete with a stated moral, only at more than four times the length. Allen goes to little trouble expanding this and instead simply pads - his usual artist-wannabe protagonist, an annoying pedant, a repressive (but not repressed) woman and so forth. He even resorts to almost four minutes of nothing but pure postcard-pictoral views of the city - really he should have been paying more attention to Atget.

The 20s Paris we get in the film is up front about being a fantasy and it would be easy to write off the whole thing as the protagonist's dream except for a brief scene of another character also being pulled into the past (quite inexplicably into what appears to be Louis XIV's period). The problem isn't that it's a fantasy but that it's one aimed at a modern American audience. That's why none of the historical figures are French except for a passing mention of Cocteau - the rest are all American or Spanish. Where's oh let's go with Proust, Artaud, Giradoux, Perse, Colette, Gide, Mauriac, Bernanos or even squeezing in Simenon and Celine just among the writers. And as a filmmaker shouldn't Allen have found just some room for Renoir, Gance, L'Herbier, Clair, Epstein, Dulac, Carne, Feyder, etc? I have no idea which of these were in Paris at this time but it's plausible for most of them and anyway the chronology of the people actually in the film doesn't match either. (And yes I know Simenon and Feyder were Belgian but they lived in France so I'm leaving it.)

But the critical point comes up with the Surrealists, bunches of whom were definitely in Paris and definitely high profile. In Allen's Paris we get Dali who just spouts silliness and then Ray and Bunuel who have very little dialogue at all. (Though Bunuel is given the idea for The Exterminating Angel in a bit reminiscent of Marty giving Chuck Berry rock 'n' roll in Back to the Future.) In other words the Surrealists are just dismissed as window-dressing where we're shown none of their anti-clericism, on-again off-again relations with the Communists, epater-le-bourgeouise tactics, blatant if pecuilar eroticism, etc. But then Allen goes out of his way to avoid politics to the point that Hemingway's "war" sounds almost abstract. This Paris has no crippled veterans, no Action Francaise, no socialists or anarchists.

But so what? Isn't Midnight in Paris just a charming fantasy film? Maybe but Allen doesn't have the light touch needed for this. He did at one point (just think Zelig or Stardust Memories or Purple Rose of Cairo) but that's long gone. It's fine that he never explains the mechanics of Midnight's situation - why for instance does Gil return every night but his past-girlfriend get to choose to stay? Why does somebody drive out every night to pick up our protagonist? What do they think they're doing? Doesn't much matter. But one stumble is the book Gil finds that's his past-girlfriend's diary - apparently this is the actual handwritten diary though that's never made clear and I just thought it was a printed book until that started to seem implausible. It's way too arbitrary that Gil will stumble across this and then be able to recognize it even though he doesn't know French. And of course that the tour guide will translate just the right section seemingly at random. Maybe this is the problem at being four times the length of a Twilight Zone episode - it's hard to stay light or clever when you're trying to keep up the running time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

American Horror Story

When I first heard that An American Horror Story was about a haunted house the obvious question was how? How could you fill a season let alone an entire series about a haunted house? Such stories have clear limitations and certainly the creators of Glee don’t have the imagination or abilities to by pass such limitations. As it happens the question of the series was resolved in a press conference where the announcement was made that each season will focus on a different house (and presumably a different cast though wouldn’t it be interesting if they kept the same actors every season but had them play different characters).

Filling the first season was done two ways. The first was to provide a parallel story so as a result we start the show with a family In crisis due to the husband’s infidelity and, it’s hinted, the wife’s dissatisfaction with having given up an artistic career (as a cellist of all things). I’m not sure this was deliberately done to fill the season so much as this is just how TV/film writers work now – characters are given one or two clearly delineated problems. TV writers in particular seem unable to write except in terms of The Family. (Reinforcing this is the flood of screenwriting books and classes, none designed to teach how to write a good script no matter what they claim but only a saleable one.) That this is the case can be shown by the thinness of the characters despite having twelve long episodes to fill – just think of how much more effective even routine films of the 30s or 40s were at creating characters in a mere fragment of this running time.

The issue with starting a horror film with an already damaged family is that it sidetracks the point of the genre which starts from normality then undergoes a disruption before returning to the status quo or something resembling it (the basic arc as well of mysteries and to a different degree romance/melodrama and comedies). In and of itself the show’s change isn’t important but what it means is that there’s already a story there (the broken family) that really doesn’t need the haunted house element and even more to the point it downplays the horror element. It’s one thing to see good people trying to overcome adversity but quite another to watch self-centered unpleasant ones. Where’s the problem? After all as American Horror Story gives us there’s not much tension – a depressed teenaged goth girl with family troubles and uprooted 3000 miles from her home and friends is certainly low-hanging fruit for any evil spirits.

But maybe this is why the creators relied even more on the second method of filling up the season – excess. Rather than a story with a couple of subplots American Horror Story seems determined to throw in everything possible. So we get the usual haunted house creeps and vengeful spirits but a nonstop parade of mass murderers, the victims, arsonists, illegal abortionists, rapist dentists, nosy neighbors, rowdy teenagers, Frankenstein-monster body constructions, deformed children in the attic, even more cheating husbands, malicious twins, a Downs Syndrome woman, a ghost who doesn’t know she’s a ghost. Oh and it goes on – the Black Dahlia, the lost colony of Roanoke, a Southern Gothic mother, a rehash of Beetlejuice (yes really), some elements lifted from Kill Baby Kill (the rolling ball and the house that can’t be escaped), a full-body fetish rubber suit and eventually the, yes, Antichrist. Nearly every episode starts with a flashback scene as well. And though this description almost makes it sound like a black comedy that’s clearly not the point even though it has one of the funniest scenes I saw this year (the ultrasound technician fainting) that seems to have been meant seriously.

At least AHS isn’t boring even though it’s not particularly clever or interesting or even good (in whatever way you want to interpret “good”). The whole thing runs along with stuff happening, stuff not mattering much and lots of people dying. It’s clear that the creators never really thought this through. A major plot point is that ghosts can’t leave the house though we actually see a couple who do. Why? What happens with the so-called Antichrist baby? Why are there so many spirits in this house and why do some hide and some not? Why does the family get a happy ending just because they died? This feels purely created by a perceived need to wrap up the season on a high note rather than anything in the story – after all nothing similar happens to the other spirits and why should the family conflicts be erased just by death? What’s the deal with Jessica Lange’s character living next door? And why would anybody move into a house that’s had so many public murders?

Guess we may never know but then do we much care. (Except maybe for the Entertainment Weekly writer who raved enough in a cover story to claim this might be the strangest TV show ever – clearly someone who hasn’t seen much TV.) I half hope the next season will focus on a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with maybe just a couple of characters – imagine Beckett rewriting The House on the Borderland. But we’ll just get a rehash of the first season which is its own horror story. (See how cleverly I did that? Hollywood call me….)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rosenbaum's spoilers

I read Jonathan Rosenbaum's "In Defence of Spoilers" back when it first appeared and back when it looked like just more of Rosenbaum's developing flakiness. But he felt strongly enough about it to include the piece in his recent book Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia - wonder if the editor asked him to rethink that decision.

Because it's an odd piece, not a defence so much as an attack on people who want to avoid spoilers. Rosenbaum basically calls them infants and compares their desire to avoid spoilers to wanting to be taken care of by parents - not exactly a mature approach in itself. Especially when you consider that much of his piece is so self-centered, claiming that it keeps him from doing his job or that not everybody thinks that way. As for doing his job of course as a critic spoilers (or more accurately full descriptive access to the film) shouldn't be avoided but much of the time his job isn't as a critic but a reviewer which is a different situation. As a reviewer most of his job is consumer advice and that involves not actually, y'know, damaging the reader's experience any more than necessary. As a reviewer avoiding spoilers is a key part of the job and if Rosenbaum disagrees then he really shouldn't have been writing reviews.

It's also strange that he apparently doesn't realize that the historical examples are irrelevant or perhaps even contradict his point. Yes, many early novels had (often lengthy) chapter titles that revealed what would happen and sure some works even mention a key plot point or even ending in the title. (And how did he miss the Trollope novels that tell you outright in the first chapter what's going to happen at the end and recommend that if this isn't acceptable then to stop reading?) But these examples all are the artist's decision, whether they might have been a convention of the time doesn't matter. When an artist doesn't include such revelations then isn't it a bit arrogant to claim that a reviewer has the right to do so?

Other parts of the piece aren't even worth discussing. To claim that avoiding spoilers would also mean he should avoid mentioning epigraphs is quite silly if not just a bizarre I'm-gonna-take-my-ball-and-go-home hissy fit. Admittedly the piece shows Rosenbaum at his worst but unfortunately it's not completely atypical of his late writing (which I'll get into more if I ever cover Goodbye Cinema).