Thursday, December 24, 2009

My 100 Favorite Films of the Decade

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all! The past ten years have been an exciting time and a scary time for cinema - it seems that the divide between the exclusive, thinking man's cinema and the populist fare has grown enormously since the turn of the century, and yet as the same time, there have been numerous masterpieces that exist in both spheres. CGI special effects have become so commonplace in our escapism that we've come to expect them to be flawless, leading one to wonder what the final frontier is. Digital cinematography has also taken a steady foothold in the industry, creating new shortcuts and innovations, but also new drawbacks and stumbling blocks for filmmakers.

What follows is an ordered list of my one hundred favorite films of the past ten years. This is not a scholarly list of "important" movies, nor is my opinion intended to reflect the contemporary audience and critical culture at large. If any of your favorites were left off, it's either because I haven't gotten around to seeing them yet (In the Mood for Love, Far From Heaven) or I just don't care for them as much as the pictures listed here (Lost in Translation, A History of Violence.) All it is is a list of the films that moved me and spoke to me. Having said that, here you go.
  1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)
  2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
  3. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, John Cameron Mitchell)
  4. The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird)
  5. No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen)
  6. Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron)
  7. Munich (2005, Steven Spielberg)
  8. Punch-Drunk Love (2002, Paul Thomas Anderson)
  9. Shaun of the Dead (2004, Edgar Wright)
  10. Sideways (2004, Alexander Payne)
  11. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003, Peter Jackson)
  12. Let the Right One In (2008, Thomas Alfredson)
  13. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002, Don Coscarelli)
  14. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)
  15. Ghost World (2001, Terry Zwigoff)
  16. Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird)
  17. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003, Peter Wier)
  18. Chuck and Buck (2000, Miguel Arteta)
  19. Amelie (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
  20. Zodiac (2007, David Fincher)
  21. Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (2001, Shinchiro Watanabe)
  22. Before Sunset (2004, Richard Linklater)
  23. 25th Hour (2002, Spike Lee)
  24. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, Joel and Ethan Coen)
  25. The Fountain (2006, Darren Aronofsky)
  26. Linda Linda Linda (2005, Nobuhiro Yamashita)
  27. Sexy Beast (2000, Jonathan Glazer)
  28. High Fidelity (2000, Stephen Frears)
  29. Downfall (2004, Oliver Hirschbeigel)
  30. Minority Report (2003, Steven Spielberg)
  31. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
  32. Y tu mama tambien (2001, Alfonso Cuaron)
  33. The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)
  34. Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)
  35. Expired (2008, Cilillia Miniucchi)
  36. Battle Royale (2000, Kinji Fukasaku)
  37. Chop Shop (2007, Ramin Bahrani)
  38. Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
  39. The Beaver Trilogy (2001, Trent Harris)
  40. Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyasaki)
  41. Dead Man’s Shoes (2004, Shane Meadows)
  42. Up (2009, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)
  43. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)
  44. Hot Fuzz (2007, Edgar Wright)
  45. In Bruges (2008, Martin McDonagh)
  46. Oldboy (2003, Chan-wook Park)
  47. The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
  48. Talk to Her (2002, Pedro Almodovar)
  49. I’m Not There (2007, Todd Haynes)
  50. Hero (2003, Zhang Yimou)
  51. Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
  52. Finding Nemo (2003 Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich)
  53. The Squid and the Whale (2005, Noah Bambauch)
  54. 24 Hour Party People (2002, Michael Winterbottom)
  55. Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)
  56. Ginger Snaps (2001, John Fawcett)
  57. Once (2007, John Carney)
  58. The Baxter (2005, Michael Showalter)
  59. Collateral (2004, Michael Mann)
  60. Nosey Parker (2003, John O’Brien)
  61. Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog)
  62. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro)
  63. May (2002, Lucky McKee)
  64. The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)
  65. Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)
  66. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! (2001, Shusuke Kaneko)
  67. Super Troopers (2001, Jay Chandraskhar)
  68. Big Fish (2003, Tim Burton)
  69. You Can Count on Me (2000, Kenneth Lonergan)
  70. The Proposition (2005, John Hillcoat)
  71. Best in Show (2000, Christopher Guest)
  72. Black Book (2006, Paul Verhoeven)
  73. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, Wes Anderson)
  74. Happy-Go-Lucky (2007, Mike Leigh)
  75. Kill Bill (2003, 2004, Quentin Tarantino)
  76. Bug (2007, William Friedkin)
  77. Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)
  78. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, Ang Lee)
  79. A Serious Man (2009, Joel and Ethan Coen)
  80. Bad Santa (2003, Terry Zwigoff)
  81. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003, Guy Maddin)
  82. Suzhou River (2000, Lou Ye)
  83. Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe)
  84. X2: X-Men United (2003, Bryan Singer)
  85. Wet Hot American Summer (2001, David Wain)
  86. King Kong (2005, Peter Jackson)
  87. The Five Obstructions (2003, Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier)
  88. Cache (2005, Michael Haneke)
  89. American Splendor (2003, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)
  90. 28 Days Later (2002, Danny Boyle)
  91. JSA: Joint Security Area (2002, Chan-wook Park)
  92. Moulin Rouge! (2001, Baz Luhrmann)
  93. The Good Girl (2002, Miguel Arteta)
  94. A Mighty Wind (2003, Christopher Guest)
  95. Paprika (2006, Satoshi Kon)
  96. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004, Danny Leiner)
  97. Persepolis (2007, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud)
  98. Open Range (2005, Kevin Costner)
  99. AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg)
  100. Sin City (2005, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez)

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Projects on the Drawing Board

At this point, it's pretty redundant to apologize for neglecting this blog. I'm halfway through with my last year of film school, and I've been about as creatively prolific as I've ever been. I'm not really all that sorry, since the main reason I started writing this blog four years ago, during my year off before college, was to keep my self busy writing about films because I was a little bitter I wasn't making them. Now, I'm so busy with making films I don't even have much time to watch them. So here's what forthcoming projects you will be seeing soon from me.

The Good Doctor - a silent movie set in New York in the 1920's. An idealistic young doctor makes a house-call at the home of a Russian Jewish immigrant family, only to discover that they are a coven of vampires who have set a trap for him. This was the first time I ever shot on film - on 16mm using the Arri-S. The film is still in the developing lab right now as we speak. It needs to be cut together and delivered by the Wednesday after next, but after it's handed in I plan on working on an original score for the picture.

Dwain Esper: King of the Celluloid Gypsies - a short documentary about the unscrupulous, hucksterish, mastermind director of the 30's exploitation classics Maniac, Sex Madness, and Marihuana: The Weed With Roots in Hell, and the producer/distributor of Reefer Madness and Freaks (aka Nature's Mistakes!) I cut this film together for my documentary class last year, but wasn't completely satisfied with the class's imposed 5-minute-maximum running time. This new cut will be a couple minutes longer, more leisurely, and a bit more lurid and lewd.

For Sale/Wanted - an offbeat romantic comedy which is my planned thesis film. An introverted, slightly grumpy young cinephile finds a VHS tape of an incredibly rare Mexican vampire film/melodrama from the 40's in someone's trash pile. However, he needs to buy a used VCR on Craigslist to watch it on, and the machine's owner turns out to be an earthy old hippie who tries to flirt with him, complicating his plan and causing him to reflect on the merits of cinephilia vs. companionship.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Van Damme Day Afternoon

Just finally caught up with last year's JCVD on DVD, a satirical yet empathetic look at the Muscles from Brussels that stands head and shoulders above anything else he's ever done. Van Damme plays a fictionalized version of himself, who, after his career falls apart and he loses a child custody battle in Hollywood, returns to his homeland for some rest and recuperation. Once there, he inadvertantly finds himself smack-dab in the middle of a bank heist situation. The bumbling criminals decide to use Van Damme as their pawn, making it look like he is the one holding innocent civilians hostage inside and demanding a ransom.

Van Damme gamely allows himself and action films that have been his bread and butter to be liberally made fun of: his agent tells him he lost a part to Steven Segal because the other promised to cut off his ponytail, and his wife's lawyer cites the ways in which he's killed fictitious bad guys over the years to build a case against him. While locked up in the post office, one of the crooks makes him demonstrate a fake-fight move on another hostage. However, the film also provides a great deal of empathy for the faded star, such as a Godardian scene in which he rises above the set and delivers a heartfelt autobiographical monologue directly to the camera. To see man who once acted pretty much exclusively with his fists and feet let his guard down and give a real performance is something of a revelation. His haggard face sometimes resembles Humphrey Bogart's as his day gets progressively worse.

It's interesting how many films in 2008 were about old, big-screen tough guys getting back into the saddle for one last ride, bittersweetly reflecting on their piss-and-vinegar days. Clint Eastwood atoned for the slew of casually racist urban vigilantes he'd played over the years in Gran Torino, Indiana Jones settled down, got married, and passed the torch in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Mickey Rourke found such a kindred spirit in The Wrestler's Randy "The Ram" that it was hard to tell where the character ended and the actor began. While not quite on the level of these films, JCVD is perhaps the most nakedly earnest out of the bunch; one minute winking at the camera, the next minute pleading to it on its knees. Though it occasionally plods during its lengthy plot-mechanics banter between the criminals and the police, it's still a profoundly moving study of a man that most of us had long since dismissed.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cinema Nolita S.O.S: an update

Clearer skies may lay ahead for the Little Video Store That Could. Even though we are still closing our shop at 178 Mulberry Street, the proceeds from our two recent fundraisers, and the generous help of Mr. Abel Ferrara and the members of Animal Collective and The Beets, have allowed us to keep the movie collection together rather than selling it off. It will be moved into a storage graciously provided by the Ace Hotel. Hopefully come mid-November, the store will reopen at a new space inside the Hotel, which is located at 20 West 29th Street, between Broadway and 5th. 

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fare thee well Cinema Nolita

Apologies for my recent absence from this blog, as I've been enormously busy, my girlfriend and I having just moved into a new apartment together. I wanted to share the sad news with readers in the New York area that Cinema Nolita, the video store where I have worked for the past summer and been a loyal customer for the previous three years, will soon be closing its doors.

Parked between two ladies' dress shops on 178 Mulberry Street, the store is only one of many hubs of cinephillia that have gone belly-up in recent years, along with the West Village's Evergreen Video, Two Boots' Pioneer Theater, and the third floor of Mondo Kim's at their old St. Marks location. Although Cinema Nolita boasted a loyal throng of devoted regular customers, unfortunately it proved to be no match for the allure of Netflix and Blockbuster's no late fee, unlimited renting plans, nor for escalating rent prices and the steady transformation of the surrounding neighborhood into a vacation spot for the young, idle and wealthy.

Gradually, as the Soho/Little Italy neighborhood became a safe, Madame Tussauds waxworks museum version of its bohemian former self, European and Middle American tourists began to dominate its foot traffic, passing the video store by in favor of the designer boutiques and trendy bars. Even so, Cinema Nolita's collection attracted cinephiles from all over lower Manhattan. Abel Ferrara could often be found rifling through the Italian Neorealist films. Customers could sit on the leather sofa by the window and engage in all manner of cinema-related banter. And the staff, always happy to reccomend things, would show meat-and-potatoes filmgoers to the latest blockbusters and prestige pictures and direct hard-core obscurists to the stores untold number of rare titles, some of them available only on VHS or bootleg DVD-R. In addition to this, its weekly Saturday Night Screening series showed a bevy of unknown classics, and invited local filmmakers to share and talk about their work.

The fact that Netflix doesn't and probably will never stock copies of Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls, Elaine May's A New Leaf, John Carpenter's Elvis, or Trent Harris' The Beaver Trilogy is only the the least of the many injustices of Cinema Nolita's closing. Lower Manhattan has lost a true community center for lovers of the cinema, a place where the soon-to-be lost art of face-to-face discussion still transpired. The slow road to film's death as a communal art form is peppered with Starbucks establishments where independent video stores used to be.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Reading the Movies

The Dancing Image has encouraged its readers and fellow bloggers to share the film-related books that have had a special significance for them. The original poster encourages the tagging of five friends to do the same; I won't, since it always seems like a guilt-trip if you happen to be too busy to participate. Let us just say you're free to join in if you want to. At any rate, here are my picks:

In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch. A friend of mine lent me his copy some years ago, which I read from cover to cover in one sitting and promptly ordered my own copy shortly after. Murch's film editing credits include Apocalypse Now, Godfather Part III and Cold Mountain. His book is probably the single best volume I have ever read on what a film actually is, and how an audience responds to it psychologically and emotionally.

Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi by John M. Gibson and Chris McDonnell. This sumptuous, coffee table-styled volume has a sentimental meaning for me, because Mr. Bakshi signed my copy when I got to meet him at a gallery event in Soho. Moreover, though, this is an incredible, career-spanning scrapbook full of animation artwork, and a sometimes hyperbolic but always sincere and passionate biography of one of America's most misunderstood and underrated film artists.

Cult Movies by Danny Peary. One of the finest collections of film criticism essays that I own. Peary uses "cult" as a pretty broad umbrella term, reviewing Casablanca, The Searchers and The Wizard of Oz alongside fare like Two-Lane Blacktop and The Honeymoon Killers. His Freudian reading of King Kong, wherein Kong is the manifestation of Carl Denham's sexual frustration a la the Id Monster in Fordbidden Planet, is one of the most fasctinating I've ever read. Like all of my favorite critics, Peary's writing says just as much about him as it does the films in question.

Making Movies by Sidney Lumet. A real gift of a book: one of America's finest filmmakers candidly sharing his experiences from a storied career. This book details the nitty-gritty experience of directing, the importance of each aspect of production, and instructions on how to use every single tool in the filmmaker's toolbox to better tell your story. A must-read for anyone interested in getting into the business.

Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. And speaking of books by respected filmmakers... while Anger enjoys a reputation as one of the fathers of the post-modern cinematic language, his famous written work is really little more than enjoyable, mud-caked load of the famous and the dead's dirtiest laundry. Every grain should be taken with a grain of salt and simply enjoyed. More than anything, this is a secret-handshake book for cinephiles, something that automatically starts conversations when people see you reading it on the subway. Did I also mention that it's just a hell of a lot of fun?

Gilliam on Gilliam, edited by Ian Christie. I got this as a birthday present when in my early teens, when Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton were my greatest cinematic idols. Gilliam is remarkably candid here and recalls his career and his many battles with producers and studio chiefs with great clarity. It's a fascinating portrait of a very neurotic but highly intelligent and creative artist.

The Psychotronic Video Guide by Michael J. Weldon. The most tattered and battered book on my shelf, this is the Leonard Maltin guide's black sheep brother. No B-movie (or A-film with B-ish roots) is left unreviewed, from horror to blaxploitation, martial arts and grindhouse pictures of all kinds. Though most video guides of this nature have been rendered obsolute by IMDb, this book is still probably the only place you'll find any info a great number of unloved genre pictures.

Hitchcock/Truffaut, by Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. When one great, young filmmaker interviews an even greater, older one, the results are one of the finest film books ever committed to print. Hitchcock starts off very joke and anecdotal but eventually starts to probe deeply into his own work and his methods of working. An indespensible volume.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

It's part of the race: David Carradine 1936-2009

The untimely death of David Carradine came as a shock to everyone, from youngsters who knew him as the eponymous assassin squad leader and father figure in Kill Bill, to the baby boomers who watched him on TV as Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, to cinephiles the world over, for many wonderful roles over the years. He was Cole Younger, leader of the Younger gang in Walter Hill's The Long Riders (alongside real-life siblings Robert and Keith), an existential circus acrobat in Ingmar Bergman's underrated The Serpent's Egg, and Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's Paths of Glory. But out of all the roles of his long and storied career, my personal favorite is the wackily nihilistic, low-budget, subversive Roger Corman opus, Death Race 2000.

The film was recently given a toothless and irony-free remake treatment by Paul W.S. Anderson and Jason Statham, but the original, directed by Paul Bartel of Eating Raoul fame, and scripted by the brilliant Charles B. Griffith, is undoubtedly the superior picture. By the year 2000, the United States have dissolved and become a totalitarian state. Population control and popular entertainment are handled simultaneously in the form of the Transcontinental Road Race, a cross-country automobile rally in which the contestants score points by mowing down innocent pedestrians. In keeping with the theme of fascistic empires, several of the racers have names like Mathilda the Hun (who sports a German helmet decked out with swastikas) and Nero the Hero. A pre-fame (and hilarious) Sylvester Stallone is Machine Gun Joe, the tommy gun-wielding, short-fuse bad boy that the fans love to hate. And David Carradine is Frankenstein, the unchallenged champ and star of the show.

According to Carradine, he sought out the role in this film to distance himself from Kwai Chang Caine as much as possible. Frankenstein wears a black leather bodysuit and gimp mask, and talks in a monosyllabic Alpha 60 voice, although this is revaled to be a front for a suave and philosophical individual. Striving to outwit his opponents as well as a ragtag group of liberal revolutionaries who set booby traps for the racers, Frankenstein, like Lemmy Caution, is a poker-faced anti-hero in a farcical, dark-witted spoof. One of the film's many highlights is a scene in which the elderly and terminally ill are lined up in the middle of the road outside a hospital for "Euthinasia Day," and Frankenstein displays his "red-blooded, American sense of humor" by driving up the ramp and taking out the doctors and nurses instead.

With its mix of sci-fi satire, grindhouse violence, Benny Hill "Yakity Sax"-inspired sped-up car chases, and 70's post-watergate sentiment (Peter Fonda reportedly turned down the lead in this film... his loss) Death Race 2000 is a deliciously poisoned cupcake for any cult film fan. And Frankenstein may well be the ultimate David Carradine performance - never winking at the camera and always acting like a professional, no matter how loopy things got. He was an actor of immense talent and charisma who will be fondly remembered.