Wednesday, June 14, 2017

My Top Ten Films

(arranged in no real order)

A Clockwork Orange (1971) Director: Stanley Kubrick
I'm aware that 2001 is probably the better and more groundbreaking film (and indeed, it is a masterful film), but A Clockwork Orange was the first Kubrick movie I ever saw (I think it was back in 1998 or so that I first saw it), and thus I feel more nostalgic towards it. It's certainly a much funnier film, though. Probably one of the rare cases where the film is better than the book (see also Fight Club, possibly Psycho and No Country for Old Men). It has a lot of classic and memorable scenes, an iconic Malcolm McDowell performance, and the costumes, set design, and art direction are simply incredible. I really love its depiction of a near-futuristic dystopian England, and unlike many science fiction films of that era it doesn't seem that dated to me, perhaps because it doesn't focus too much on technology: it just has a lurid, surreal, dreamlike vibe that I dig. But one of the main reasons why I rank this film so highly is because I really love the music in it (this will be a common theme for many of the films in my top ten), in particular Wendy Carlos' Moog synthesizer compositions of various classical pieces (though some of her work on there is original as well: see for example "Timesteps," that monolith of early experimental electronic music, though sadly only a small portion of it appears in the actual film). It's no surprise that a lot of the original pioneering synthpop bands were very fond of this movie.
Barton Fink (1991) Director: Ethan & Joel Coen
Sometime in the late 1990's, shortly after I began getting into the work of Quentin Tarantino, I became very interested in the whole indie movie craze sweeping through Hollywood at the time (and let's face it, the 90's were a great decade for indie films), and I began seeking out other indie directors, eventually discovering the work of the Coen Brothers. I first saw this movie in the spring of 1998, and it was the 3rd Coen Brothers film I ever saw: since then, I have seen it many times (in fact, I have whole portions of the film's dialogue committed to memory). I rank it in the top 3 of the films of theirs that I've seen, with Miller's Crossing a close second. Maybe because it revolves around the angst of writing and the life of the mind or something. After doing 3 films in a row dealing with crime and criminals, here the focus was more on the horror atmosphere the brothers first mined with Blood Simple (though again, there are some crime aspects at work), and this is also their first film to focus on Jewish themes to some extent. For a film set in Hollywood (and I must say it does a very good job evoking a sense of time and place), the film has a creepy and squalid Eastern European art-house vibe that calls to mine Kafka (though Joel Coen has denied him as an influence), alongside films such as The Shining, Eraserhead, and Polanski's Repulsion. Although all of the acting performances are great (especially John Goodman... also, John Mahoney does a funny impersonation of William Faulkner), the real star of the film is the fictitious Hotel Earle that serves as the movie's principal setting. Designed by Dennis Gassner (who was also the production designer of Miller's Crossing), the Hotel Earle is a very evocative place, with its endless hallways, malevolent mosquitoes, decaying décor, peeling wallpaper, and eerie sound effects. Although the film has some very funny scenes and dialogue, it's more interested in creating a dream-like, symbolic-laden sense of surrealism: oddly enough, the back cover of the DVD edition I own of the film makes it sound more like a zany comedy!
I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) Director: Mary Harron
Another film I saw in the spring of 1998, at the height of my obsession with 90's indie films. I first read about this film in Entertainment Weekly's 1997 yearbook, where it was picked as one of the 20 best films of the year. The review hyped up (among other things) "Harron's re-creation of the Warhol Factory," which made me very curious as I had never heard about the Factory at that point: indeed, I knew very little about Warhol himself, aside from the fact he did all those Campbell's Soup can paintings. So in some ways watching the film proved to be a very eye-opening experience.
At the time in which I first saw this film I was somewhat interested in feminist politics and found the story of Valerie Solanas to be of interest: I even purchased and read her SCUM Manifesto shortly after seeing the film. I don't think all that much of her anymore, but I can thank this film for getting me obsessed with the whole 1960's NYC Warhol Silver Factory scene (to say nothing of Warhol and his art in general). Speaking of which, though I've seen many actors portray Warhol over the years, I can say that Jared Harris, by far, is the best one to portray him. There's a lot of great period detail to make you feel like you're right there in 1960's NYC, and the recreation of the Silver Factory, as EW noted, is very spot-on (it probably helped that Billy Name provided some assistance to the film). Also of note is the soundtrack, which combines period music of the era with trendy 90's indie bands (such as Luna, Wilco, Pavement, Bettie Serveert and Yo La Tengo) doing covers of songs from that same period (in fact, Yo la Tengo makes an uncredited appearance in the film as the Velvet Underground). It's just a shame they couldn't get the rights to any actual VU music.
Reality Bites (1994) Director: Ben Stiller
I first saw this film in the spring of 1998 (noticing a trend now?). Shortly beforehand I had seen the film The Truth About Cats and Dogs (a delightful romantic comedy, highly recommended) and had fallen in love with Janeane Garofalo, and I wanted to see another one of her films. I had also just finished writing a novel ("Arthouse") where I envisioned the main character looking like Winona Ryder, so I wanted to see one of her films as well. With Reality Bites, I figured I could kill the proverbial two birds with one stone. In any case, it was this film that led to my becoming a big Winona Ryder fan.
I don't suppose that you could call this in any way a "cool" or "hip" movie (in fact many of my hipper alternative friends see it as the epitome of lame), yet there's something about it that I really like that I have trouble putting my finger on (aside of course from Ryder and Garofalo). It really screams "The 90's/Generation X" I guess, and there's something comforting about watching these young people agonize over what we would now think of as trivialities: here things like 9-11 and terrorism in general seem very far away. In my mind it seems to make a nice, more realistic companion piece to the Ben Stiller Show, partly because Stiller is the director here and it uses most of the main cast of that show (only Bob Odenkirk is MIA), and partly because I first saw the Ben Stiller Show that very summer, a mere few months after first seeing "Reality Bites." There are some funny scenes, and I really like a lot of the Houston landmarks that appear in the film (I also quite like the art design of the main characters' apartment). Soundtrack IS pretty lame, though, with a few exceptions.
Seven (1995) Director: David Fincher
I first saw this film sometime in the late winter/early spring of 1999, 1999 being the year in my life in which I was most fixated on the subject of serial killers, especially fictional treatments on the subject (give me a break, I was only 18/19). I seem to recall that I was reading The Silence of the Lambs around the same time as I saw this film, and read Red Dragon not too long afterwards. In any event, I think I can claim that Seven (or, if you prefer, Se7en) is by far my favorite serial killer movie. The concept of the film (a serial killer whose crimes are inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins) is pretty slick, and for a big budget mainstream Hollywood film there's something oddly uncompromising about its commitment to its downbeat pessimism and its constant sense of gloom (reflected both in the aural rot of the film's sound design and also the macabre visuals and rain-drenched sets). I also enjoyed its literary references (with nods to Dante, Chaucer and John Milton, among others) and its sly allusions to various visual artists (the stack of identical cans of spaghetti sauce found in the closet of the victim of Gluttony calls to mind Andy Warhol, for example).
One of my favorite things about the film is the experimental montage that serves as the title sequence, the music for this montage being Coil doing a remix of the Nine Inch Nails song "Closer." I had never heard music like that before, and found myself obsessed with it: so I can thank this film for not only getting me into Nine Inch Nails and Coil, but also industrial music in general. Now that I think about it, I believe that Gravity Kills was on the soundtrack as well, and the Bowie song that appears during the end credits is from his Outside period (thus, that short-lived span of time that saw him flirting with the industrial rock genre).
Ghost World (2001) Director: Terry Zwigoff
I forget when it exactly was that I first saw this movie... probably around the same time I began exploring the work of Dan Clowes, but I forget when exactly that was as well... 2003 perhaps (I seem to recall it was around the same time I first started reading Alan Moore, so probably the summer of 2003). Ghost World is an odd film for me, in that I always hype it up and rank it quite highly, while always forgetting just why it is I do so... until, that is, I watch it again and I'm reminded why! I know Thora Birch was pretty big at that point (she was also in American Beauty a few years previous... whatever happened with her career, anyway?) and she's very good here, but her performance is somewhat overshadowed by Steve Buscemi, who is VERY good.. probably my favorite role of his (with his Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs a close second). The film is a mostly well-done adaptation of Clowes' graphic novel of the same name (it probably helps that Clowes wrote the screenplay as well), and it also incorporates bits and pieces from some of Clowes' other comics ( I especially adored the Feldman cameo). In the end it did a good job of capturing the quirkiness and odd random moments and encounters of Clowes' work in general.
Jackie Brown (1997) Director: Quentin Tarantino
Of course, my uncritical adoration for Tarantino's films is well-documented. Reading his Pulp Fiction screenplay (in June of 1997, almost half a year before I saw the actual film) had almost as big of an impact on me as a writer as did other seminal books such as Anne Rice's Interview With The Vampire and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. It basically showed me that not all dialogue had to be plot-plot-exposition-plot, that you could be meandering or have characters talking around subjects rather than talking directly about them... and of course, it was my gateway drug to the world of 90's indie films. Shortly after seeing Pulp Fiction (in November of '97) I saw Reservoir Dogs,"and around the same time (January 1998) my mother took my brother Tom and I to see Jackie Brown in the theaters, thus making Jackie Brown the first Tarantino film I ever saw on the big screen: I have since seen every one of his other movies in theaters, with one inexplicable exception (Inglourious Basterds).
It's really hard for me to pick a favorite Tarantino film as I pretty much like all of them, though obviously some (such as Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained) are better than others (Hateful Eight, Deathproof). But I've always had a nostalgic soft spot for Jackie Brown, which I think is one of his more overlooked and underrated films (it perhaps doesn't help matters that it had the unenviable role of being a follow-up to the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed Pulp Fiction). An old issue of Film Comment magazine back in the day praised Jackie Brown's flat lighting, its soft color scheme, and the patient camerawork, all of which created a heightened sense of an exhausted/tired workday reality (in contrast to the hyper-kinetic mayhem of some of his better known films). In some ways it's Tarantino's most restrained, realistic and mature film, and he never really made another movie quite like this one: it just seems very grounded in the real world. One of my favorite aspects of the film is the friendship between Pam Grier and Robert Forster's characters, which seems like it will bloom into a romantic relationship, but never quite reaches that point: the scenes that deal with Forster's awareness that he's slowly falling in love with Jackie are tremendously affecting and touching. Also, of all of Tarantino's films, I would say that this one probably has his best and most cohesive soundtrack.
Do The Right Thing (1989) Director: Spike Lee
I first saw this movie in a film course I took during Fall semester of my Freshman year at Rhode Island College (the precise date was October 20th, 1998, a Tuesday: I know this because I made note of it in my academic planner). I've seen a few other Spike Lee films since (namely He Got Game and Summer of Sam) but none have really captivated me as much as Do The Right Thing. To be honest, Lee's spat with Tarantino in the late 1990's might have played a part in my antagonism towards him and his work in general (granted, the homophobia accusations that he's never quite been able to shake didn't help matters).
But Do The Right Thing is obviously a masterpiece of a film, with a great cast and very effective use of music. Much of the controversy it garnered at the time came from people being worried that the film might inspire racial violence, or being disquieted by the actions of some of the characters, but I think the most unsettling thing about it is its implication that everyone is racist and bigoted in some way (there's a really powerful montage where a number of different characters from various races speak directly to the camera and unleash the most vile racist diatribes imaginable)... and yet, people still coexist. And although it turns into a tragedy in its final act, there's no denying that at the same time it's a very funny movie, and I do think there's a lot of admirable empathy on display here: many of the characters are caricatures to some extent yet they also have their good sides and (aside perhaps from the police officers) you get to know them as people as the film goes on. One of the most interesting artistic choices Lee made (to me at least) is that the ultimate victim isn't really a very likable character (though maybe I'm biased because I don't like people who blare music in public), and Danny Aiello's character, though something of a bigot (though not to the extent of one of his sons), isn't really THAT bad of a guy, all things considering. I suppose the character I most identified with was Ossie Davis' Da Mayor. Many of the film's characters see him as nothing more than an old drunk and an Uncle Tom-type figure yet despite this he has a certain Old World dignity and charm that I can associate with... in saving the life of a child from being hit by a car he's also one of the few characters in the film who performs an act that could be considered heroic.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Director: Wes Anderson
I first saw this film around the time it was released on DVD, so I'm guessing it was sometime in 2002. It was not the first Wes Anderson film I saw (that would have been Rushmore), but it was the second. Like with Tarantino it's really hard for me to pick a favorite Wes Anderson film (certainly The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel could qualify for such an honor as well), but I usually go with this one.
Perhaps it's due to the film's literary air: I like how the narrative is framed as if it were chapters in a book, and I also like how most of the characters in the film are published authors of one sort or another (indeed, one of my favorite aspects of Anderson's films are the fake books that often appear in them... and how I wish they really existed!). I enjoy the whimsical and idealized depiction of a fairy tale New York City on display here. I certainly like the soundtrack, which features cuts by such artists as Nico, The Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, and others. And it's a very funny movie as well. Much like I said about Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, I think this is another film where a lot of empathy is on display, though I get that vibe from many of Anderson's films... I like how he presents the audience with a number of self-absorbed and flawed characters who, somehow or other, manage to usually achieve some manner of redemption or improvement in their lives. But most of all, I love the film's attention to little details (another thing I think Anderson excels at), in particular the Tenenbaum house, which is just a beautiful collection of sets: I love how the Criterion DVD came with a giant map and diagrams of all of the rooms in the house showcasing all of the little details (this was drawn by Anderson's brother, I believe). The house is practically a character in its own right!
Les Misérables (2012) Director: Tom Hooper
My introduction to the world of Les Misérables was, of course, the novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: the narrator of that book, Patrick Bateman, is (somewhat ironically) obsessed with the Les Misérables musical. This inspired me to buy the original cast recordings of the musical (both the original Broadway cast recording AND the original London cast version: like Bateman I preferred the British version). The Broadway version came with a synopsis in the CD booklet that explained the story, but because it was written in such tiny print I never bothered to read it... instead I would just listen to the songs and try to figure out the story through the lyrics over the years. Then, in 2011, I was able to catch a performance of the musical itself at PPAC in Providence, and while waiting for the show to start I finally read a synopsis of the show in the program book that I was given. In 2012 I saw the movie that I'm about to write about now, and in 2015 I finished reading the original Victor Hugo novel (which I highly recommend, by the way... a truly great book). So I guess you could say I'm a big fan of the entire Les Misérables phenomenon in general. Hell, years ago through eBay I even was able to get my hands on an original vintage Broadway Theatre Les Misérables playbill from 1986.
Anyway, I saw the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables on February 19th, 2013: I think it may have been the last week or so that it was in theaters. The main reason I put it off so long (aside from the fact that generally I don't like going to movie theaters) is that I was worried it would suck. But to my surprise I really enjoyed it. The production, costumes and sets were very nice, and I thought the cast as a whole was pretty good, with Hugh Jackman especially effective as Jean Valjean (Aaron Tveit's Enjolras was pretty good as well). It stayed pretty true to the musical and even threw in some nice nods to the Hugo novel (which I wasn't aware of at the time, because as I noted earlier, I didn't read the novel until 2015).
My other big worry about seeing it in theaters was I worried about getting "emotional" in public. I've long found the story of Les Misérables tremendously and profoundly moving (as melodramatic as it is), and when I had seen the musical the previous year I had gotten a little teary-eyed during the epilogue. But I figured the theater would be dark, who would really notice anyway? And for the most part I was able to get through most of the film dodging that bullet (had a close call during Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" number, though). And I was doing good righttttt up until the end, until the film got to Valjean's death scene. That damn lyric "To love another person/Is to see the face of God" kills me every time: it doesn't help matters that in the film it's co-sung by Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean!) as the spirit of the Bishop Myriel, the man who first set Valjean on his path to grace and redemption. Yeah, I won't lie, when the ghost of the Bishop appeared to usher Valjean into the afterlife, that got to me: after the film was done I had to duck into an empty stall in the nearest men's restroom until I had composed myself. And I wasn't the only one!






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