No Call to Get Snippy

#30: Comfort and Joy (Bill Forsyth, 1984) Maybe I shouldnít have been so quick to issue my disclaimer about comedies a few entries back--of my last three picks, two count for sure and the other arguably does. This is the Bill Forsyth film that flew under the radar back when he was getting a fair amount of attention in the Ď80s. It started with Local Hero, which I like almost as much as Comfort and Joy; I would have been okay with including that somewhere near the beginning of my list. I think we got Gregoryís Girl soon after over here, even though in Scotland it was made and released earlier. I didnít much care for that one, although I know it has a following. Criti- cal enthusiasm for Forsyth reached critical mass a few years later with Housekeeping, which came after Comfort and Joy: some ecstatic reviews upon release (Sarris might have had it as his favourite film of í87), yet itís now something of a forgotten film. Iíve been meaning to rewatch it for years. I found it ponderously slow at the time, but Iím guessing Iíd be more open to it today. A few years after that, there was a doomed star vehicle (Being Human with Robin Williams) that essentially killed off his career. Havenít seen it--few have. Comfort and Joy, like Shoot the Piano Player and Il Posto, is a low-key examination of one manís melancholia, in this case a popular morning drive-time DJ in Scotland who feels heís deep-down a serious person with serious things to say. The melancholia experienced by Alan ďDickieĒ Bird is less cosmic than what you find in the Truffaut and Olmi films--he seems like a basically happy guy until the mundane circumstance of his girlfriend walking out on him intrudes. Their break-up scene as the film starts is probably the most genial of its kind that youíll ever see; Bird is even seen reluctantly assisting the vacating girlfriendís helpers as they remove all the furniture from his apartment. Where the film goes from there is summed up perfectly by the expression on Birdís face to- wards the end of the accompanying clip: fanciful to the point that you donít quite believe what youíre seeing, yet so deftly rendered that you accept it all and go with along it anyway. (The story is actually based on real-life events, I seem to recall, the Ice Cream Wars or some thing like that.) The improbable intrigue that Bird finds himself caught up in is just backdrop to the real story anyway, which finds its resolution in a throwaway scene in a hospital where Bird hears first-hand the real value of his unserious work telling jokes and affecting funny voices on the radio. Three reasons I love this film so much, all of them found in the clip: 1) lots of driving scenes, many of them at night (all the drivers are sitting on the wrong side of the car, but thatís okay); 2) Claire Grogan from the band Altered Images; 3) jokes that leave me smiling for days--ďGive us an autograph, Dickie.Ē My favourite in the entire film has to do with Mr. Softy. (Probably not necessary in the age of instant and complete accessibility, but if you want to see this and canít find it, someoneís posted the whole thing on YouTube.) #29: Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) Another pick somewhat determined by happenstance--itís been on my floating ďmaybeĒ list since we started, but itís one of those films Iíve watched so many times that I wasnít sure I wanted to write about it. Iíve just finished watching Sybil, though, the made-for-TV movie from 1977 that was the first serious attention Sally Fields received as an actress (a year be- fore Norma Rae), and that has led me back to Carrie. I hadnít seen Sybil since it first aired-- Iíd been intermittently looking for a copy for some time, and finally found a cheap two-disc reissue on Amazon a few weeks ago. Itís a movie that, if you saw it way back when, has stayed in your mind ever since--uncomfortably so--and it was even scarier this time around. Which brings me to the first thing I want to say about Carrie: Carrieís mother was not the most terrifying screen mother of the mid-Ď70s. She wasnít even close--Sybilís mother wins that one hands down. Carrie is a very good horror film. The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are, to my mind, the greatest pure horror films of the Ď70s, and back when that was enough for me, I would have gone with one (or both) of them for this list. But Carrieís more than that--itís also a great film about high school, as funny and as period-perfect as Fast Times or Dazed and Confused or anything else that aspires to get that time in your life right. (It occurs to me that this is the second of five films on my list that will involve either a senior prom or homecoming dance.) If you were to lop off every scene involving telekinesis or Piper Laurie, I bet Iíd still go back to Carrie for stuff like John Travolta and Nancy Allen slapping each other silly in the car, or for the pioneering brilliance of P.J. Soles, mother of all Valley Girls (ďGet that smirk off your face, NormaĒ). Brian De Palma even gets away with sticking a fictional band doing a written-for-the-movie song into the prom scene--theyíre more convin- cingly cheesy than the Feelies in Something Wild. Travolta, Allen, Soles, and even William Katt are all great--in trying to figure out why Katt didnít go on to the kind of career Travolta had, I can only surmise that he (and this may ap- ply to Amy Irving, too) had a face that was too preternaturally angelic--and so are Laurie and Betty Buckley. This was Laurieís first film since The Hustler 15 years earlier--thatís amazing. (Also a contender for my 50; I went with Hud instead.) Taking nothing away from any of them, this is still Sissy Spacekís film. Iíll be seeing Badlands later today, part of a Malick series at Torontoís Cinematheque--that and Days of Heaven together, so I may need electroshock afterwards. I donít know that moviegoers had ever seen anyone like Spacek when she came along with Badlands and Carrie in the mid-Ď70s. Now and again, sheíll still turn in performances that make me think sheís the best actress alive: Affliction, The Straight Story, In the Bedroom. (Most thankless role ever: JFK.) She was never more weirdly affecting than in Carrie. Perhaps not surprisingly, YouTube availability pretty much comes down to Carrieís pyrotech- nics at the prom (which, truthfully, Iíd take over any Hitchcock scene), the coda, or the trailer. I wish I could link to Travolta and Allen in the car--their back and forth is worthy of a Ď30s screwball comedy (with Martha & the Vandellas as a bonus). Not to be, so remember: theyíre all going to laugh to you. #28: Fargo (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1996) First words that pop into my mind when I think of Fargo: ďTotal fuckiní silence.Ē Not ďyahĒ or ďMargie,Ē but ďtotal fuckiní silenceĒ--like itís a Bergman tribute or something. Something Iíve made note of elsewhere: there have been so few films in my life where my opinion was upgraded drastically over time--if not a full 180, then close enough--that I can recount them individually. The first instance where I remember this happening was King of Comedy, which so threw me the first time I detested it; when I took a second look, its bizarre flatness began to make perfect sense, and it now safely sits in my second tier of Scorsese favourites. The strongest feeling I took away from my first viewing of Lost in Translation was tangible disappointment, having loved The Virgin Suicides so much--more on the both of them later. Took me at least three tries to realize how great Gus Van Santís Elephant is; I went from complaining that the kids were empty abstractions to finding it hard to imagine how you could render their deaths so movingly if the film had been done any other way. I did not initially sign onto the Fargo juggernaut in 1996 (spearheaded by Siskel and Ebert-- when Siskel died, I recall Ebert saying that Fargo encapsulated everything he loved about movies). There were things I liked about it, but they were brushed aside by the most obvious of objections: it seemed like a work of telegraphed condescension, and all those ďyahĒs drove me right around the bend. At that point in time, there was one Coens film I considered a masterpiece (Millerís Crossing--still do), while I was indifferent to the rest of what Iíd seen. Today, Fargo is one of those films thatís like comfort food to me: I watch it once or twice a year, always when nothing else appeals to me and I just feel like completely losing myself in something. I adjusted to the ďyahĒs, which lifted the veil on something that should have been obvious from the start: the directors love these characters, especially (of course) Marge Gunderson. Far from what seemed like a lot of folksy shtick to me at first, I now find myself caught up in this vast, ominous machine--foreshadowed perfectly by the low-angle shot of the Paul Bunyan monument early on--that ends in a pitifully sad place: Margeís uncomprehending ďAnd for what? For a little bit of moneyĒ as she drives the one dumb lunk off to jail, followed by Jerry Lundegaardís hapless demise. (A sadness punctuated by the serene coda with Marge and her husband.) Thereís still one thing about the film I donít like. Yes--the Mike Yanagita detour. Ebert and Siskel thought he was one the filmís most miraculous inventions, and I think I can piece to- gether an argument that someone might make for his centrality. For me, his lunch with Marge is painfully awkward enough that itís simply unpleasant to watch; take it away, and I donít think youíre left with any less of a film. Iím very happy that Frances McDormand won the Academy Award; William H. Macy somehow didnít (show me the money and all of that), and Steve Buscemi wasnít even nominated. Ditto Peter Stormare as Buscemiís accomplice, but as indicated earlier he doesnít say a whole lot, not unless it concerns pancakes. #27: Broadcast News (James Brooks, 1987) Give me one minute, please--this is tough. Jeff has just listed what Iím guessing will be the most demanding film of the 150-minus- duplications that the three of us end up picking. (Not meant as a value judgement--simply as a practical matter, a slow-moving, subtitled 15-hour film makes certain demands on you.) I canít do any better on that side of the film-going spectrum, not unless I go with Andy Warholís Empire or something like that, so Iíll double back and pick what could well be the least demanding. If you have no use for it, Broadcast News might be the very defini- tion of middlebrow (or ďmidcult,Ē as Dwight Macdonald called it): an innocuous bit of fluff with pretensions towards social significance. It recently got a Criterion reissue, so I guess that bestows upon it some veneer of art. Mind you, you can say the same of Armageddon and The Blob. Middlebrow, probably; Iíll instead say itís standing in here for all those classic screw- ball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and My Man Godfrey (and His Girl Friday) that Iíve seen and enjoyed, but which again have faded from view for me. No use for James Brooksís As Good as It Gets, and Iíve pretty much forgotten his Terms of Endearment, but Broadcast News Iíve seen at least 10 times. Yes, I think itís that good. If Brooks has a signature style, I wouldnít know what it is anyway--thereís not a lot going on in Broadcast News visually or directorially. Itís the three principal performers who bring me back, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks especially. Hunterís Jane Craig (seemingly modelled on Jane Pauley) is a maniacally intense version of that famous line from the first Mary Tyler Moore episode, also a Brooks project: ďYouíve got spunk.Ē If you remember Ed Asnerís comeback, youíll know that spunk is not necessarily endearing, but Craigís perpetual overdrive is mitigated by her habit of blubbering uncontrollably whenever she stops to catch a breath. Throw in a weirdly appealing accent, and sheís one of my favour- ite female lead characters ever. Albert Brooks must have had a major hand in the conception of Aaron Altman; lines like ďWouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?Ē could be dropped right into Lost in America or Modern Romance. And William Hurt, an actor I donít always like, manages a tricky balancing act: heís re- quired to be intellectually obtuse enough that heís always a half-step behind everyone else, but at the same time sharp enough to use that as a way to manipulate others and ad- vance his career. (Which brings to mind Alaska for some reason, reminding me that one of the best jokes in the film involves Alaska.) Thereís so much going on between the three of them, you can mull over or discard the movieís big revelation as need be: network news is sometimes more in the business of entertaining than informing. Network news barely exists in 2011, but in broader outline the issue never really goes away, witness Anthony Weiner yesterday and whoever grabs our attention tomor- row. You wonít need Broadcast News to open your eyes to that. (I do, though, like the way the surprise twist is handled towards the end--it completely caught me off guard the first time.) Back on Wednesday. Weíll meet at the place near the thing where we went that time. #26: Welfare (Frederick Wiseman, 1975) This should more accurately be placed a little higher on my list, but I've just finished watching a rental copy, and I want to write about it right away. Like Comfort and Joy, it's probably about as close as you can get to "not all that easy to see" in this day and age. (Frederick Wiseman sells expensive copies on his website.) I've seen it three times now. If I had to pick one single film to encapsulate (from a distance--I was only a teenager at the time) my sense of what the mid-'70s felt like, Welfare would be on my short list with two or three others. What I mean is, my sense of the mid-'70s then was the same as any teen- ager's would have been, and I was preoccupied with the same things that a teenager would be preoccupied with today. The lives of welfare recipients were not on that list. But when I piece the story together retroactively, with an adult's understanding of Nixon's resignation, the Patty Hearst story, the assassination attempts on Gerald Ford, Fordís ďdrop deadĒ to New York City, and all the other stuff that was happening at the time, Welfare speaks to all of that in ways that are amazingly prescient and resonant. Prescient because it was actually filmed in 1972, before any of that happened; resonant because, in short, it's a cinťma vťri- tť plunge into a country on the brink of collapse. You can date the beginning of that col- lapse to the JFK assassination, escalation in Vietnam, 1968, or wherever you choose, but Welfare really does feel like the end of the road. Wiseman famously directs films about social institutions: high schools, hospitals, courts, boxing gyms, etc. Welfare is exactly as advertised (Wisemanís knack for intentionally mun- dane titles is as dryly precise as the Pet Shop Boys'): he takes his camera into a New York welfare agency, and you spend almost three hours watching people argue, plead, and hiss in- vective at each other, as clients and agents try to negotiate their way through the Byzantine rules and regulations that govern eligibility for government assistance. ďAt each otherĒ is misleading--most of the time, people talk past each other in Welfare. The clients are caught in this (the clichť applies) Kafkaesque cycle of getting bounced from government agency to government agency, and one after another, they seem to be delivering a tale of misery they know by heart by now. The government employees who try to process them, who try to piece together their stories and set them straight on what they need to do to get a cheque (or maybe just an appointment, or something called a ďfair hearingĒ), seem to be asking a lot of questions that circle around each other and lead nowhere. Nothing much ever seems to get accomplished. Iíll quote the exact words (dutifully transcribed by yours truly) of a woman I count as the filmís most unforgettable client, an apoplectic middle-aged black woman with a weirdly menacing black streak down her forehead. Sheís trying to sort out her motherís situation: Welfare Agent: ďYouíre making it sound like itís my fault.Ē Woman: ďItís not my fault, either. Itís not his [her fatherís] fault, heís in the hospital. Itís not her [points at her mother] fault, sheís sick. Whose fault is it?Ē Itís a question that is never answered in Welfare--and, whatís so perfect about Wisemanís technique, Iím not sure the film even tries. Wiseman just recedes into the background and watches it all happen. #25: Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) If you havenít read Mark Harrisís Pictures at a Revolution, do so--I think Iíd pick it as my favourite film book not by Kael or Stanley Kauffmann. Great premise: take the five best- picture nominees from 1967, follow their stories from conception to completion to their eventual showdown for the hardware, and use that as a window onto profound changes with- in the industry and within the country at large. One thing I loved about it is that Harris takes a step back from the Ď70s, the decade that has forever been my own frame of reference when it comes to movies (and just about every- thing else, too), and lays the foundation for what was just around the corner. I think itís pretty easy to pinpoint the five American films that most built that bridge from í67 to í70: two of them, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, are covered in Harrisís book, while the other three--Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, and Midnight Cowboy--appeared in 1969. Judging by the name that Steven provided for this group, Iím pretty sure The Wild Bunch will be high on his list; Iím guessing that Bonnie and Clyde will show up on at least one of Stevenís or Jeffís lists; Iíd be a little surprised if Easy Rider turns up anywhere. (Unless it already has with Lost in America.) I like them all to varying degrees, but The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy are the two from that group that have far and away meant the most to me over the years. There have been times when I might have listed one or the other as my #1. I donít have room for both at this point in the countdown, so Midnight Cowboy it is--or, as John Candy would have said in Dr. Tongue and Woody Tobias Jr.ís SCTV remake, itís Midnight Cowboy, yíall. I get the feeling that The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy havenít worn nearly as well as Bon- nie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch among critics. Whereas the latter two seem very modern today, Iíve seen Nicholsí and Schlesingerís films dismissed as the work of dilettantes--the kind of (counter-) cultural artifacts that are too clever, too patronizing, and ultimately too glib to be taken seriously. Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch helped create the mo- ment; The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy cashed in on it. (When I make these vague assertions, trust me that theyíre based on rock-solid evidence--there are people out there, and they are talking.) I can see some validity to that view. (Iíll leave Benjamin Braddock to his scuba gear and plastics at this point, and get on with Midnight Cowboy.) When Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman trip the light fantastic at the filmís big climactic party--ďIf itís free, I ainít steal- iníĒ--the walk-on-the-wild-side decadence is pitched so over the top that it seems less like a Warhol happening than a slightly more drugged-out Laugh-In or Playboy After Dark shindig. (Thereís a Factory party depicted in Mary Harronís I Shot Andy Warhol that seems much closer to the truth; people dance to Motown and the Loviní Spoonful, but maybe thatís just the dif- ference between 1965 and 1969.) And when Schlesinger juxtaposes Voight and Sylvia Miles going at it with a frenetic television montage of Everything Rotten About America, he may as well be Stanley Kramer. There are other lapses of heavy-handedness. So of course I love practically all of it, even the party scene. Itís all window dressing for Voight and Hoffman. Iím having a hard time thinking of comparable films that are so dom- inated by two lead actors in quite the same way (I can think of a few where two lead actors are accessories to the story, but here itís the other way around). When I see Voight on TV these days, railing against Obama and carrying water for the Tea Party, Iím baffled and sad- dened. How do you get from there to here? Iíll stop short of saying that itís ridiculous they were both beaten by John Wayne for Best Actor that year, because a) itís easily explained (X rating, vote-splitting, and the Lifetime Achievement Award thing), and b) Iíve never seen True Grit. Iím not really offering any analysis here...Youíve seen Midnight Cowboy--you donít need any- thing from me. I will tell you that my friend Peter and I have been quoting lines to each other for years. Number-one favourite (must be delivered in weasely high-pitched whine): ďYou gotta meet my friend OíDaniel.Ē #24: Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2004) I had planned on reluctantly bypassing this, but last week it was viciously attacked in the comments section--viciously, I say--and now I have no choice but to put it on my list. I originally came to Elephant with little interest in Gus Van Sant, and even less in Colum- bine. Thereís a real arbitrariness to the big news stories I get caught up in. I was obsessed with the O.J. case, but hardly paid attention to Phil Spector or Robert Blake. The Japan earthquake, the hurricane in Haiti, and even 9/11 felt remote (I know that sounds terrible), while Katrina couldnít have felt any more immediate. A few sex scandals Iíve been hugely in- terested in, most not at all. I donít know what it is that connects me to some stories while the rest slip away. As a teacher, especially, Columbine should have felt very close. There was that barrier to get past, and there was also Van Santís methodical, seemingly de- tached manner of depicting an event that on the face of it suggests exactly the opposite approach. Instead of chaos, much of the film involves watching kids walk through school hallways--sometimes the same kids and the same hallways more than once. I mentioned on the song countdown how integral music is to me when Iím required to have the necessary patience to watch languorous, long-take filmmaking (Tarkovsky, Bťla Tarr, etc.). Give me some beauti- ful music, like the Arvo Pšrt song I listed on the countdown, and suddenly Matt Damon driv- ing a car in the middle of nowhere for six minutes--Gerry, also by Van Sant--is as good as it gets. But Elephant does not rely on music to do its work; I think thereís some music here and there, but after seeing the film five or six times, I couldn't tell you a thing about it. So the first time I saw Elephant, I had the same reaction that Iíve used to describe other films that threw me: I knew Iíd seen something, I just wasnít sure what. When I wrote about it for Scottís site (listing it as my 6th favourite film of 2003--hey, Steven, I gave it a 6.0!), I hemmed and hawed, praising it for what it wasnít--sensationalistic, sentimental-- but not quite sure how to address what it was. I thought it came up short on the thing that mattered most: feeling devastated when kids started getting killed. Eventually, though, the filmís rhythm made perfect sense. The sheer ordinariness of the world that the killers shatter is rendered dreamlike by Van Sant, and it slowly draws you in. One boy snaps pictures in a park, a girl scurries off to her library job, another boy puts up a front for his girlfriend. Thereís one passage around which everything else seems to arrange itself, and itís repeated two or three times from different vantage points: the photographer, the boy, and the girl pass each other in the hallway (the two boys stop and talk for a minute) as they make their appointed rounds. Once you have a feeling for this world, once you retrieve it from memory, when the deaths do start coming theyíre indeed devastating. Which is why I say ďseemingly detached.Ē Two clips, both of which foreground the killers. (Everything thatís prelude to the killings is lightly represented on YouTube in the way of shorter clips; the whole film seems to be on there, though.) The first is the massacre--just awful. The other is from a user, a slow-motion assemblage of bits and pieces set to Tears for Fearsí ďMad World,Ē the Donnie Darko song. I think it gets at what I love about the film very, very well. Donít bother with the comments-- I took a look and couldnít get past the second one. #23: One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest (Milos Forman, 1975) My 23rd favourite film of all time is Chinatown, making it the first instance during this countdown where Iíve come up against something that has already been listed (by Jeff at #30). Based on whatís been revealed so far, this will happen again four more times; as we move ahead, though, Iím quite sure that number will double or even triple. In most cases, and especially as we get into our Top 10s, Iíll let my pick stand and do my best to write some- thing that adds to whateverís already been written. But with Cuckooís Nest and Chinatown, I feel okay making a one-to-one switch. Because of Jack Nicholson and their close proximity chronologically, the two films are very much linked together in my mind: not that theyíre at all similar in tone or stylistically, and Iím pretty sure thereís more art in Chinatown, but Iíve seen each numerous times, and I imagine that at certain points in my life I would have gone with Cuckooís Nest anyway. Best of all, Iím hoping that Jeff and/or Steven have this slated for their lists, and this time I get to fuck with their heads instead of being the guy scooped. Andrew Sullivan does various ďwatchesĒ on his Daily Dish blog: Cool Ad Watch, Insane Repub- lican Watch, etc. I should have launched a Films My Friend Peter and I Like to Quote Watch near the beginning of my list. I mentioned Midnight Cowboy earlier, and thereíve been one or two others so far. Chinatownís a key film from our secret shorthand: Peter gravitates towards Noah Cross (ďJust...find the girlĒ), I can rhyme off lines from Polanskiís ďHey there, Kitty-KatĒ scene or Nicholson and Dunaway outside the restaurant (ďI happen to like my nose...Ē). Whenever I break out the Nicholson, though, I usually look to Cuckooís Nest: ďHit me, Chief, Iím in the open,Ē ďThe mental defective league--in formation,Ē ď'Cause I think we need to get to the bottom of...R.P. McMurphy.Ē On Nicholsonís birthday, when I play a clip for my class, I alternate between the restaurant scene from Five Easy Pieces and the scene in Cuckooís Nest where he fakes catastrophic trauma after his first electro-shock session. That scene just kills me, especially the little wink at Will Sampson he sneaks in. Somehow, in a film that is start-to-finish Nicholsonís show, the supporting cast is indeli- ble. Louise Fletcher so much so that, even though Iím guessing her actual screen time is on the light side, she won and deserved the Best Actress award that year. That look on her face at the end of the clip below is one of the filmís great moments. The rest of the patients-- the mental defective league--is an amazingly rag-tag collection of actors who went to bigger careers, or at least quirky roles in films elsewhere on my list: Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd before anybody knew who they were, the poetry teacher from Carrie in the role of Ches- wick, Mr. Vargas from Fast Times as one of the less communicative patients. And Brad Dourif, of course, who might be the first person you remember from the film. I havenít read Ken Keseyís book, also famous. This is very unfair, but based on reviews Iíve read that compare the two, my sense is that I wouldnít think nearly as highly of the book. #22: The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999) Later tonight, Iíll attend grad night for the grade 8s at my school. Sheer coincidence--I slot- ted The Virgin Suicides for #22 about three weeks ago--but this is Prom Film #3 on my list. I said thereíd be five, but I scrapped American Graffiti somewhere along the way. The fourth will involve not a full-out prom, but something that serves the same function. I took the time to rewatch The Virgin Suicides over the weekend, and Iíll admit that Iíve had some second thoughts. Itís such a mood piece, and this time I donít think I was in exactly the right one. I also just finished squirming through 140 minutes of The Tree of Life, which must be one of the biggest hunks of Kael bait Iíve ever seen--itís not the most opportune moment for me to be listing something elliptical and self-consciously poetic and so-not-Ridgemont-High. I considered reverting back to a film Iíd dropped earlier on, Rushmore, which appeared almost simultaneously with The Virgin Suicides and also affected me quite a bit. But Iíll stay with Coppolaís film, because a) it had already held up over the course of six or seven previous viewings, and b) even this time, I found the beauty of certain passages as stunning as ever. And as improbable--I still do not know from what life experiences Coppola was able to conjure up a world that more or less matches my own romanticized version of the mid-Ď70s. She was four years old at the time. Well, if you believe one of the boys narrating The Virgin Suicides (which essentially means If you believe Coppola), itís because sheís a female--she intuitively understands everything about me, while Iím forever trying and failing to make sense of her, from the time Iím in grade school until, presumably, the day I die. I can go with that; I donít necessarily believe itís true, but when I connect with a film on some level that runs deeper than the rational/intellect- tual, Iím usually okay with whatever it wants me to believe. The adult Trip Fontaine (seemingly in rehab) thinking back on Lux Libson across the decades: ďShe was the still point of the turn- ing world, man.Ē I think thatís as valid a moment as Mr. Bernstein recalling the young woman on the ferry in Citizen Kane. I havenít read Jeffrey Eugenidesí novel; Iíve come across people who prefer the book, and others who prefer the film. Itís not difficult to imagine what the book can get at it in more detail than the film--though all the voice-over narration does try to give some semblance of interior lives--but the film can give you Todd Rundgren, Carole King, Heart, and others in a way that a book simply canít. The clip Iíve linked to is inner-circle hall of fame when it comes to pop music in movies. What I really took notice of this time around was the scene where Rundgrenís ďA Dream Goes on ForeverĒ plays, the party where the boys get the Down Syndrome kid to do funny, entertaining things. They mean well. Cecelia quietly leaves the room and kills herself. Itís such an excruciating scene to watch, you donít necessarily question the logic of what she does. Something else I thought of for the very first time (I donít know why it took me so long to re- member this): in the mid-Ď70s, we had a family of Libson sisters move into the corner house on my own street. The Martinique sisters, or something like that. They were French-Canadian, there were four of them, and their age range lined up almost exactly with that of the Libsons. I donít think I ever thought of them as the still point of the turning world (that was Nancy Phillips), but I do know my friend John and I spent a lot of time cycling past their house one summer. #21: Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994) Iíd have to do some detective work to reconstruct the exact timeline, but I think Crumb was the film that kicked off a window of 10-plus years where documentaries gradually started to account for at least half of the new films I saw. There were a few before Crumb that opened my eyes to how great a doc could be--28 Up and Letís Get Lost come to mind; The Thin Blue Line I didnít care for, and Hoop Dreams took a second viewing--but starting in í94, the number of documentaries out there that interested me seemed to multiply exponentially from year to year. That window hasnít exactly closed--Iím still seeing a lot of good ones (most recent: Bobby Fischer Against the World)--but, as Jeff says, a certain predictability of style and tone crept in somewhere along the way. Just as an example, I wasnít nearly as big on Inside Job or Client 9 as everybody else was. Crumb startled me the first time I saw it, and I still find it fascinating. I knew very lit- tle about Robert Crumb going in. There was a Toronto outfit called Crazy Davidís that used to sell ďKeep on TruckiníĒ T-shirts back in the Ď70s, and I think I knew that Crumb was behind those; Iíd owned Cheap Thrills for years, and probably knew heíd done the cover; I hadnít read a comic book by anyone in years, much less any of his. More often than not, my favourite documentaries are those where I know very little about the subject matter going in. You can approach Crumb from a few different directions. Itís a film about an artist making art; even though Crumb mostly laughs off any attempts to explain his objectives or themes, he does, somewhat sheepishly, reveal a lot about what he does and how he does it. More specifi- cally, Crumb is about ďoutsiderĒ or ďtransgressiveĒ art (hate clichťs, but sometimes I relent), with a detour or two into the phenomenon--not exactly new at the time, but newer then than now--of political correctness; one of the highlights is Robert Hughes practically hissing the words ďWell, what do you do with anybody who doesnít conform to the standards of Berkeley?Ē Thereís a little bit about Haight-Ashbury and the hippie moment, even though Crumb is adamant that he despised all of that--he does tell a funny Janis Joplin story, though. But more than anything--and why Capturing the Friedmans makes for a perfect set-up--Crumb chronicles (or maybe, like Capturing the Friedmans, inadvertently stumbles onto) the most nightmarish family unit imaginable. When I was watching Crumb again last night, I thought of The Tree of Life. Theyíd make a weirdly great double-bill; Iíve already made it clear I wasnít all that fond of Malickís film, but if you wanted to set two versions of life in the Ď50s under a domineering father side-by-side, theyíd do nicely. Sean Penn wanders around in The Tree of Lifeís contemporary scenes heavy with memories of his childhood. Next to Charles or Maxon Crumb, Robertís two brothers who are so integral to the story Terry Zwigoff tells, Penn is the very picture of a well-adjusted adult. I couldnít find any clips of Charles on YouTube, which is not surprising--itíd be nice to sup- pose that the sensitivity of YouTube users decided that, but more likely Robert intervened. Charles is why the film was so startling the first time; heís quite probably the single most compelling figure Iíve ever seen in a documentary. Iíve seen two of the three films Zwigoffís made since Crumb: Ghost World, which I liked a lot (had it on my decade-end Top 10), and Art School Confidential, which I thought was pretty good. When I wrote up the decade-end list, I said Iíd make an effort to see Bad Santa. Still havenít. #20: No Country for Old Men (Ethan & Joel Coen, 2007) Iím about 50 pages into Bill Jamesís Popular Crime. I like this quote from Nate Silver on the book jacket: ďItís sabermetrics meets the Coen Brothers.Ē Having once written a sabermetric defense of Milli Vanilli, I can vouch for the endless flexibility of sabermetrics. (So far the book has been largely formula-free, but Iíve just gotten to Jamesís 100-point evidentiary scale as applied to the Lizzie Borden case, so the math is picking up.) More than any film Iíve ever seen, I needed a second viewing of No Country for Old Men. (Iím up to about eight now.) I watched at least three-quarters of the film through splayed fingers the first time. It wasnít so much the violence itself, which is both graphic and plentiful-- Iíve seen lots of films that can match No Country in the quantity and ferocity of its violence. What most unnerved me about Anton Chigurhís various killings was the sound of that violence; whether done with that horrific contraption he carries around or by some other means, every act was accompanied by a loud, sharp, crystalline whoosh or thomp that cut through the silence and made me jump out of my chair. Didnít even have to be a killing--as one of the YouTube commen- tators points out, the phone in the accompanying clip is lethal. Weíre into the Top 20 now, so I wouldnít be listing No Country for Old Men if its big accom- plishment was a lot of expertly choreographed violence, even expertly soundtracked violence. Every third American film since Bonnie and Clyde can lay claim to expertly choreographed viol- ence, and most of the time I canít think of anything that causes my mind to shut down quicker. Itís worth going back to Marge Gundersonís ďAnd for what? For a little bit of money?Ē from Fargo at this point, and also to a line from Kaelís famous Bonnie and Clyde review: ďDuring the first part of the picture, a woman in my row was gleefully assuring her companions, ĎItís a comedy. Itís a comedy.í After a while, she didnít say anything.Ē (I always wonder whether people like this woman actually existed when I read Kael, but weíll put that aside.) No Coun- try for Old Men for me is an incredibly sad film. The world that Tommie Lee Jonesís sheriff is drawn into is several degrees more brutal and inexplicable than the one that Marge Gunderson has to contend with. She does solve the case and restores order in the end; Jones is left to turn his back and walk away, with the suggestion that heíll be forever revisiting what heís just experienced in obscure, fragmentary dreams. No Country for Old Men was released in close proximity to There Will Be Blood (November of 2007, just under two months earlier than P.T. Andersonís film, according to IMDB), and the two are closely connected in my mind. Above all else, and for all their obvious differences, they both feel like George W. Bush films to me, large-scale reveries in which people get swallowed up by the landscape and by lawlessness and go a little insane. I know itís tenuous when you start linking movies to presidential administrations--J. Hoberman pulls it off in The Dream Life--but they share a mood that captures the waning months of the W. era well as everything began to ground down to a halt. Iím about to do something Iíve never done and will never do again, which is to quote Bruce Springsteen: ďWell, sir, I guess thereís just a meanness in this world.Ē Iíll mention one caveat about the Chighur character Iíve made before, something that I donít think makes him any less of an unforgettable creation: heís basically an American art-film version of Freddie Kruger or Jason Voorhees, the indestructible monster that canít be killed. (Bardemís hair belongs in some kind of hall of fame alongside Joe Pesciís in JFK and Sean Pennís in Carlitoís Way.) No slight to Bardem or Jones, but I think the most subtle perfor- mance in No Country is given by Josh Brolin, whoís got a foot in each of their worlds. He ended up playing both W. and Dan White within the year; both felt like hollow mimicry. #19: The Candidate (Michael Ritchie, 1972) I might be forgetting something, but there are three political films I love. Iíll first quali- fy that statement the same way I did on the song countdown, which is to say that by political I mean overtly so, not just in the sense that you can read politics, either a little or a lot, into most any film if you want to. (And a second qualification: documentaries excluded. The War Room comes to mind, and there are probably others.) The first is slated for my Top 10, although itís really more about journalism than politics. Not hard to guess what that one is. The second would be Otto Premingerís Advise and Consent, which I first saw two or three years ago and gets better each time I go back. Itís far from perfect--itís got some of that slickness youíd expect from a big-budget early-Ď60s film, and the performances are all over the place--but I find it quite compelling nonetheless. And then thereís The Candidate. Advise and Consent details the day-to-day maneuvering involved in get- ting a controversial nomination through the Senate; The Candidate takes a step back and details the day-to-day maneuvering involved in getting yourself to the Senate in the first place. The central theme, that getting elected is no different than successfully packaging and marketing any product, will hardly startle anyone in this day and age, and Michael Ritchie and writer Jeremy Larner obviously owed a lot to Joe McGinnissís The Selling of the President 1968, which got there first. The film didnít even necessarily startle in 1972; Stanley Kauffmannís review basically amounted to ďWell done, but tell me something I donít know.Ē Point conceded, to a degree. What continues to amaze me about The Candidate is how unerringly right every last detail is, and how little has changed in the intervening years. Iíve read the McGinniss book, and I think The Candidate is a much more atmospheric, meticulous, and free- wheeling reconstruction of a political campaign. Itís been a while, but McGinniss specifically focussed on the advertising wing of Nixonís í68 campaign, as I recall; thatís only one of many elements in Ritchieís film. Especially in 2008, as I obsessed over first the Obama-Clinton con- test, and then Obama-McCain, things would pop up that seemed right out of The Candidate. One example among many: when Hillary dismissed Obamaís qualifications at one point with a brusque ďAnd Senator Obama gave a good speech,Ē it perfectly matched the Crocker Jarman spot that dis- misses Robert Redfordís Bill MacKay with a brusque ďAnd what are Bill MacKayís qualifications? His father was senator.Ē So maybe Kauffmann felt the film was yesterdayís news by í72, but to me it feels more and more prophetic with each passing year. (Obama. I donít want to get into a big political thing here...I get tired of it on the message Iíll just say that it was a little sobering watching The Candidate again last night at a moment when Obamaís presidency seems more adrift than ever.) Kael called Nashville an orgy for movie lovers, so Iíll echo her and call The Candidate an orgy for political junkies--those like me who are addicted to the drama and the spectacle, not to the minutiae of policy. The film is an accumulation of great moments out on the trail: a summit with a labour leader that anticipates the closed-door meeting between Michael and Sena- tor Geary in Godfather II; some unusable ad footage of Redford trying to interact with over- wrought mothers at a health clinic (I swear these few seconds planted the idea for Welfare in Frederick Wisemanís head, and they also set up my favourite line in the film, Allen Garfieldís ďGrim scene, baby, grim sceneĒ); an editorial from the real Howard K. Smith, whoíd do it all over again in Nashville (and a roving reporter whoís always addressing ďWalterĒ in his spots-- nice touch); a great running joke with a groupie (you can spot her in the accompanying clip); so forth and so on. And Peter Boyle, who steals the film. Choosing a clip was easy. If a semi-famous film (at best) can have a famous ending, this is it--I hear political commentators make reference to it regularly. I especially like how Red- fordís question is voiced almost silently the second time. #18: Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998) Iíd be overstating it to say I agonized over this choice, but I have spent the last three days going back and forth in my mind between Rushmore and Boogie Nights. Call it a dead heat for this spot. Iím still not high enough on my list where the prospect of writing about a film already listed by Jeff or Stephen--something I have a natural resistance to--becomes unavoid- able. It will be at a certain point, but Iím not there yet. There was some stuff I wanted to add to Jeffís Boogie Nights entry, and Iíll probably go back and do so in the comments. Mean- while, I think Rushmore is every bit as remarkable, and the two of them are closely linked for me: within the space of a few months, there were suddenly two guys named Anderson using pop music in ways that turned my head around more than anything Iíd seen since Mean Streets 20 years ago. I did want to double-check (Iíve watched both way too many times), so I took another look at Rushmore for the first time in a few years. The film I love has not dimmed. Itís the rare movie that is a) clearly autobiographical (something underscored by Andersonís subsequent films), but b) so fantastical that I look at it and think ďWhere did he ever come up with this?Ē I suspect detractors (and Rushmore definitely has them) experience something close to the same reaction: ďJesus, what is this?Ē We more or less mean the same thing, except that Iím awestruck while detractors are in disbelief. I wrote a fairly lengthy appreciation of Rushmore that was the first thing I ever posted on the homepage Iíve been keeping for a decade. Most of the things I singled out then are the same things Iíd single out today, starting with the montage of Max Fischerís extra-curricular activities (first time I saw Rushmore, this sequence pulled me into the filmís universe with such force that I donít think I questioned a thing the rest of the way), the Whoís ďA Quick OneĒ as Max and Herman Blume wage psychic warfare on each other, and the ďI Am WaitingĒ se- quence, especially the shot of Margaret Yang peering through the window at Max (an echo of Chaplin looking at the flower girl at the end of City Lights). In subsequent viewings, my single favourite moment became one that flashes by in a split second: the look on Bill Mur- rayís face when Max says ďMr. Blume, this is my father, Bert Fischer.Ē I would ask anyone who thinks of Rushmore as a gimmicky, precocious film to think about those last two. Thereís much about Max thatís unlikeable to the point of being obnoxious, and I donít think Anderson tries to gloss over that. In the end, I love the character. Having spend my entire life as someone who passive-aggressively waits around for people to figure out how Iím feeling about a certain situation (and who continues to play at this past the point where anybody much cares anymore), I envy the Max whoís able to blurt out ďYou hurt my feelings!Ē in the res- taurant without worrying about making an idiot of himself. Which he most definitely does. The backstory about Anderson soliciting Kael to see Rushmore is pretty famous by now. If you donít know the details, here they are in Andersonís own words: According to an interview Anderson gave with Salon, though, Kael did in fact like Rushmore: ďShe promoted it a little bit to other people, that kind of thing. But I also think she thought it was weird. I don't know if it was really her bag. But she did tell other people to see it and that she liked it.Ē Clearly, Wes Anderson cares too much about what Pauline Kael thinks. Clearly, so do I. #17: The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005) Strange, unsettling, and a different kind of claustrophobic. Clearly autobiographical, but my guess is that itís the kind of autobiography that (unlike Rushmore) invents the bare minimum-- changes someoneís name from Gary to Jerry, makes the next-door neighbour a dentist instead of a doctor, that kind of thing. But it really does feel like Noah Baumbach is recounting his upbringing very precisely here. Itís an upbringing that I half recognize. In broad outline, it couldnít be more dissimilar to my own. The two boys here--teenager Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg from The Social Network) and his younger brother Frank--live in a fairly rarefied world, less economically (although that too) than culturally. Thatís what I mean about fudging the details just enough: the Berkman parents both write fiction, the mom for The New Yorker, whereas Baumbachís mom was a film critic for The Village Voice (Georgia Brown--I think I used check her reviews for a time), and his dad is listed in Wikipedia as a novelist/film critic. The boys have a private tennis instructor, their fatherís idea of small-talk consists of authoritative dismissals of Dickens and Fitzgerald--always a big topic of conversation around my own familyís dinner table--and they just generally comport themselves in the detached, eccentric manner of kids privileged enough to be a beat or three removed from the mundane concerns of less privileged kids their age. When their parents split up, they take sides. Itís the world of Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman--ďthe upper-class WASPs of the U.S. socio-cultural elite,Ē Wikipedia calls it, also linking the three directors together. None of that applies to me. What I do recognize, though, and what Iím sure most people will recognize, is a family dynamic where a lot gets left unsaid. Itís a common theme: itís there in Long Dayís Journey Into Night, which is great, and itís there in Ordinary People, which, based on dim memories from 30 years ago, is ordinary. (Not a film for a 20-year-old, least of all one horrified to see it beat Raging Bull for best film--I should see it again.) Big things get left unsaid--maybe we should talk about momís morphine addiction--and little things. One by one they accumulate, and after a while everyone knows the trap doors. When someone opens one up accidentally, or with the in- tent of antagonizing someone else--The Squid and the Whale is very much about those deliberate acts of provocation--the carefully constructed house of cards starts to teeter. In the Berkman family, everything pivots off the father. I donít think Iíve ever encountered another cinematic father like the one Jeff Daniels creates here. To say he takes up a lot of oxygen would miss the mark significantly. There is no oxygen when heís around. Maybe thatís why the younger Berkman son seems beyond just detached and eccentric at times. Itís more like heís brain- damaged. I donít know where Danielsí frightening performance comes from--prior to this, he was just the genial doofus in Something Wild to me. Laura Linney is as real as the mother as she was in You Can Count on Me. Seems like Iíve seen a lot of memorably weird kids in American movies the past decade, and Eisenberg and Owen Kline would head the list. I like The Social Network a lot, but the strength of Eisenbergís performance in The Squid and the Whale creates some interference for me. Hereís the final scene, one of the most elliptically perfect Iíve ever seen. The movie follows with Bert Janschís ďCounting BluesĒ over the end credits, something I wrote about in the song countdown (Janschís ďRunning from HomeĒ was my #4--I may still have never heard it if not for Baumbach). Iíll repeat the key line from ďCounting BluesĒ here: ďDonít be afraid.Ē #16: To Sir with Love (James Clavell, 1967) I had something really Sight & Soundy slated for #16, but Iíve flip-flopped a couple of picks so I can bring Steven and Jeff's canonical reign of terror to a momentary end. Be forewarned: Iím a great believer in the infinite powers of nostalgia, and can be very protective about the most cherished objects of my misty-eyed reveries, so if youíre someone who dismisses such a mindset--not naming any names here--just take three steps back and be very, very careful. I mentioned Mark Harrisís Pictures at a Revolution earlier, in conjunction with Midnight Cow- boy. The not-so-secret star of the book is Sidney Poitier. He made three hugely successful films in 1967, two of which vied, deservedly or not, for Best Picture, and inadvertently found himself caught up squarely in the politics of the day. As cities rioted, he was #1 on the list of 1968 box-office stars (#7 on the í67 list--there must be a year lag in measuring that). All three of his í67 films put race front and center--pretty much impossible not to at the time if your lead actor was African-American. (Even in Night of the Living Dead a year later, race is weirdly front and center because of George Romeroís inspired decision to avoid any mention or even awareness that his lead character happened to be African-American.) American film in 1967 meant Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Sidney Poitier. A brief word on the other two Poitier films that year. I donít know that anyone would argue for In the Heat of the Night as being great art, but itís well done, and watching Poitier and Steiger go at it is very entertaining. I think Poitier should have won Best Actor that year for the sum of his performances, but Steiger was otherwise a fine choice. As for Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner, well, itís not without merit, and not as hopelessly dated as you might ex- pect. Thatís about the best I can say--itís been a while since I last saw it. To Sir with Love was the least consequential of the three at the time, and has probably been seen by far fewer people (although itís hardly obscure--I find that most people anywhere close to my own age have seen it). If youíre puzzled by my inclusion of it here, you likely find it no less cloying, sentimental, or naÔve than Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner. And indeed, Sarris simultaneously praises and dismisses it as ďsuper-KramerĒ in The American Cinema. Where to begin conveying what I love about it? Iím sure every teacher can point to a film or two as the idealization of what kind of teacher you want to be and too rarely are. Mine is split between a few films (thereís even a part of me that likes being the supercilious Kings- field in The Paper Chase), but To Sir with Love wins that one walking away. Ending up as a teacher wasnít even on my radar through my 20s (I remember ridiculing a friend who went straight from university to teachers college), but when I did finally apply at the age of 28, I know that somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind was the moment in To Sir with Love when Poitier turns the corner on the final day, pauses, and thereís everyone all lined up looking as angelic as can be. Once Poitier gets past the moment early in the film when he justifiably flips out and has the (convenient, yes) light bulb go off in his head as to how he needs to handle the class, heís a model of temperance, good judgement, and deep concern the rest of the way. I have my moments where I stumble onto one or another of those elevated states of being, but mostly Iím just making it up blindly as I go along, so I really fall for that part of the movie. The rest of my attachment is where nostalgia takes over. I saw To Sir with Love at a very young age (probably at a drive-in), and the music, the dinginess of East London, Judy Geeson and Lulu, Christian Roberts as Brando/Dean, the period details, the incredible field trip to the museum, Poitierís dramatic gesture at the end, it all made a deep impression on me. The clip below, Poitier and Geeson dancing to ďItís Getting Harder All the TimeĒ at the gradua- tion party, is in the running for my single favourite scene ever. I even love how it subverts one of the polite racial stereotypes of its day: as Poitier lurches around preposterously, Geeson turns out to be a fantastic dancer. Actually, Iíd say that To Sir with Love is more nuanced in its treatment of race than In the Heat of the Night. The crotchety old teacher who baits Poitier casually slips in a couple of especially venal lines. Remember now: be very, very careful. (Wish I could link to the SCTV parody with Bob Geldof, but nothing on YouTube.)

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