August 23, 2016


I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.


The following list of the Top Ten Films of the 21st Century is presented in alphabetical order

Cry When it Happensdirected by Laida Lertxundi (2010, 14 minutes)

Or, being lonely in Los Angeles. Shot in 16mm, it opens with a shot of two women spooning each other out of boredom, followed by a bright blue sky impinged upon by a bar of sunlight. Then the shot of the sky is repeated, but now  it’s on a tube tv in a dingy hotel room, with a black bar scrolling down the frame. Imagery of boxes and enclosures proliferate. In the room, a wordless woman slowly presses her accordion and eases out a few tones. An exterior shot of the hotel finds L.A.’s city hall reflected in its windows, trapped. When Lertxundi returns to the shot of the real sky, the chorus of The Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby” plays on the soundtrack: “Little Baby/I want you for my own/I need to see you/See you alone.”  There is a yearning for escape from these boxes, and a need for human connection, expressed in the bouncy 60s Brit-pop tune. Then, a shift – the hotel TV is plopped outside a mountain range, the sky and the Rondos both enclosed behind the screen. It is freeing, but ominous. It’s like the movie turned itself inside-out, the interplay between freedom and enclosure never resolving. They need each other, after all.


The Headless Womandirected by Lucrecia Martel (2008, 87 minutes)

A comfortable middle-class mother (Maria Onetto) runs over a dog, and she is later consumed with the fear that she also killed a child. De-centered from her daily life, she is isolated by Martel in shallow focus close-ups in the widescreen frame, her family haunting the edges, fuzzy spectres present mainly through the dense sound design. The accident occurred right before a major storm, and water keeps seeping in around her, whether pouring from the sky, or intimated in the cement discovered under her lawn, which used to hold a fountain. She slowly ebbs back into consciousness, only to discover that she no longer fits, so she dyes her hair.


The Intruder (aka L’intrus), directed by Claire Denis (2004, 130 minutes)

L’intrus was inspired by a brief essay by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on the physical and metaphysical fallout of the heart transplant he had received ten years previously. His question: ““If my heart was giving up and going to drop me, to what degree was it an organ of ‘mine’, my ‘own’?” Michel Subor plays a man whose body has rebelled against him, and whose concept of self is slipping. The film slips along with him, proceeding on an associative montage that jumps from Polynesia to Pusan to the French-Swiss border. Subor’s body is a border that has been breached, and the whole world is rushing in. My first published film essay was on The Intruder, for Senses of Cinema, and it is not entirely embarrassing.


Mysteries of Lisbondirected by Raul Ruiz (2010, 272 minutes)

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable.  Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


Resident Evil: Retribution, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (2012, 96 minutes)

Anderson is a director-as-cartographer, obsessively mapping his post-human landscapes so whatever life-form succeeds us will know EXACTLY how to navigate the inside of the evil Umbrella corporation’s underground lair. Said lair is built for 3D, all brightly lit corridors layered with screens, the frame sliced into depths. Depth and death are everywhere, and our only hope (thankfully) is Milla Jovovich, a model-athlete who does her own stunts and is the most believable savior since Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ.


Sparrow, directed by Johnnie To (2008, 87 minutes)

A project To had been working on for three years in between his higher budgeted features. Often described as a musical without songs, it follows a group of pickpocketing brothers as they get ensnared in the web of Kelly Lin’s femme fatale, who has been forced into a union with a local crime boss. Filled with lyrical passages of a bustling HK, it then explodes into symphonically complex heist sequences. Balloons float down affixed with a safe key, criminals engage in a thieving dance underneath a downpour, with the umbrellas used in twirling Busby Berkeley-esque patterns.


Step Brothers, directed by Adam McKay (2008, 98 minutes)

Gloriously anarchic, it’s the purest distillation of the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell aesthetic, which values combative performances above all else, a kind of actorly one-upmanship. After completing the relatively large-scale Talledega Nights, McKay wanted to, as he told The Oklahoman: “do a film that was almost all about characters and dialogue — no action and no ’70s nostalgia, just straight-up, nonstop riffing.” Enamored with the improvisatory nuggets mined by the team of John C. Reilly and Ferrell on Talledega, McKay conceived of a plot that would have them together on-screen for an entire film, hence the step-brotherdom. The movie, then, is a scrim for a feature-length improvisation session, which was how Ferrell and McKay were trained: McKay at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Ferrell with The Groundlings, before they both teamed up on Saturday Night Live.

Reilly is the outlier, the one with dramatic chops whose id was let loose by the Apatow gang. He’s quite wonderful in Walk Hard, probably the most underrated of the Apatow comedies, but there’s a peculiar sophomoric magic that occurs when he spars with Ferrell, a matter of timing and sensibility. They key off each other’s self-absorbed personas, trading insults so absurd it turns into a battle of the non-sequitur (“The last time I heard that I fell off my dinosaur.”). Their delight in performing with each other is contagious, spreading to the straighter-laced parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins. Steenburgen savors each curse word, while Jenkins turns in a performance that is close to madness. His shit-eating grin while being seduced by Ferrell’s yuppie brother Derek (Adam Scott) edges into the grotesque, while his monologue about his teen T-rex impersonations is pure Dada.

The plot disappears during the sublimely ridiculous ending, set at the “Catalina Wine Mixer”. That phrase is intoned ad nauseum until it becomes pure nonsense, a children’s game, syllables rolling around the tongue. This “nonsense” spreads through the whole sequence, incorporating dreams, fantasies, and the solid organizational structure of Enterprise rent-a-car. The film would make a great double-bill with Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business, another film which reverts to childhood. It’s critical of its adults-turned-kids, while Step Brothers revels in the pre-self-consciousness of children. But both films are unafraid to look silly for the sake of a laugh and refuse to condescend to the innocence and destructiveness of youth.


Stuck On You, directed by The Farrelly Brothers (2003, 118 minutes)

The Farrelly Brothers most autobiographical film, about two brothers from New England whose love and affection keeps them working together for decades. In the film they are conjoined twins played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. Damon is a goofy putz happy to be a hometown hero, while Kinnear dreams of an acting career in Hollywood. The leads are earnest and open, while the supporting parts include Jean-Pierre Cassel as a hilariously cheapjack agent who buzzes around on a scooter, and Eva Mendes in one of the finest comedic performances of the decade. She plays an airhead with sincerity and pathos, channeling Marilyn Monroe in, you guessed it, Monkey Business. Fun fact: features a (funny!) cameo from former Presidential candidate Ben Carson.


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, 114 minutes)

Set in a small farming village in the Northeastern part of Thailand, it tracks the last days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) during which he is visited by the curious ghosts of his relatives. It is a film of permeable borders, between Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, between life and death, man and animal. It has the same kind of space-time permeability of The Intruder, where bodies are way stations, not endpoints.


Wolf Children, directed by Mamoru Hosoda (2012, 117 minutes)

Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her werewolf husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.


July 7, 2009

Steven Soderbergh’s baseball statistics movie Moneyball was shelved by Sony a few weeks back, mere days before shooting was to begin. Budgeted at $57 million and with Brad Pitt slated as the lead, its abandonment seemed to signal that mid-range, artistically ambitious projects will suffer the most in the current financial crisis. As ace Variety blogger Anne Thompson has noted, “Hollywood is moving in two simultaneous directions: behemoth event pics, and smaller personal films — with little middle ground.” One would expect that along with Soderbergh, Michael Mann and David Fincher will find it increasingly difficult to get their visions onto the screen. This is lamentable, regardless of your opinion of the filmmakers (I’m partial to Fincher, but an admirer of all), who each bring an ambitious pop sensibility to the screen. But what of the genre directors? These mid to low-budgeted spectacles (the Transporters, House Bunnies, and Hangovers) will always be cranked out, and will generally be profitable. If nothing else, the espousers of the auteur theory taught us to ignore the boundary between “high” and “low” art, to scavenge in every nook and cranny of the American cinema for possible artistry.

The Independent’s Kaleem Aftab expands Thompson’s reasoned analysis into a confusing screed about the lack of “great American directors”, and he ignores genre films as well. Below the fold I offer a list of my favorite contemporary genre operators, a group of under-the-radar auteurs and purveyors of quality pulp. First though, I have to take Aftab to task. Aside from the fact that he lists 20 or so “great” directors in his own piece, he clearly has no idea what an “auteur” is. His definition: “a director whose films had to be watched no matter what they were about or who was in them.” He goes on to say that after the auteur theory hit, “Suddenly, it was the director rather than the producer, the studio or the lead actor who became the star.” Aside from the fact that this is blatantly false (only Hitchcock could be considered a “star”, everyone else the New Wavers or Sarris championed were anonymous genre operators: Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller), it never discusses the films themselves, only their popularity.

He equates auteur status with box-office success, and so he has little interest in Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, or Wes Anderson, because “none are household names, and none command guaranteed box-office.” The ignorance of this line is breathtaking – a studio head couldn’t have encapsulated the triumph of commerce over art better.  Nothing tops the line in his discussion of Judd Apatow though….witness: “It’s unusual for a comedy director to gain auteur status…”. Yes, if you ignore Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Blake Edwards, Preston Sturges….

That’s enough negativity for one post. Let’s think pretty thoughts – ones involving bodily fluids, but pretty nonetheless. This list is not supposed to act as a counterweight to Hollywood doomsaying. I agree that the majority of Hollywood’s output has suffered terribly since the studio days, and that kind of effortless craft is probably never to return. Consider this an addendum to Sarris’ chapter in THE AMERICAN CINEMA on “Subjects for Further Research”, a hodgepodge of encouraging voices from the disreputable realms of the action, comedy, and horror realms, and in no way tracking any trends. Just a few names I’ve gained plenty of pleasure from on the lower end of the Rotten Tomatoes rankings, and those that will continue to reside in-between the “behemoth event pics and smaller personal films”. These guys (and girl) make up the ignored middle ground.

1. Adam McKay (Anchorman (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008)):

Adam McKay has a clear directorial personality and style: he places emphases on group improvisation and the psychoses of men in arrested development. His comedy skews anarchic and prefers digression to clean narrative lines. He’s the only true inheritor of the Marx Brothers’ manically performative aesthetic, even their relatively lax visual style. Absurdities build up until they burst out in insane setpieces (the anchorman street fight, the Mountain Dew-sponsored dinner, the Catalina Wine Mixer). Step Brothers is the purest distillation of his aesthetic thus far. Directed best episode (#5) of Eastbound and Down. Curious to see how a film without Will Ferrell would turn out…

2. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank (2006); Crank: High Voltage (2009)):

The cleverest action-film fanboys on the screen (apologies to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino). The two Crank films are marketed as action films but end up as comedies about the action genre. The plot in both concerns Chev Chelios’ heart failure. In the first he needs shots of adrenaline to stay alive, in the second, shocks of electricity. Both reflect on the audience’s need for constant titillation, and do so in resourceful ways. Jason Statham proves to be a deft deliverer of wisecracks and pratfalls, as he shimmies to “Achy Breaky Heart” or tumbles onto a horse track. Sequel is funnier, less moving than the original. Next up for them is Gamer (2009).

3. Peyton Reed (Bring it On (2000), Down With Love (2003), The Break-Up (2006), Yes Man (2008)):

By far the most successful director on this list, he’s possibly the most unknown. The only director who could resurrect the romantic comedy as a viable genre. Had the gall to end The Break-Up with an actual break up, as well as filming arguments with bite and verve. Handles female performers well: see Kirsten Dunst’s exuberant performance in Bring it On and Renee Zellwegger’s last charming turn in Down With Love (including a bravado 3 minute or so monlogue). Shows a talent for brisk pacing and actual witty dialogue. Have yet to see Yes Man.

4. Jessica Bendinger (Stick It (2006)):

She’s only directed one film, but it shows a flair for Busby Berkeley-esque montages of bodies in motion as well as other offhanded bits of visual wit, like when the lead gymnast blocks out her annoying competitor in the background by blotting her out with her sneaker in extreme close-up. Not to mention the exuberant performances by a slew of unknown teen girls in Jeff Bridges’ struggling gymnast camp. And to further not mention the strikingly visualized theme of girls taking power over their own bodies in the beautifully anti-climactic finale. Bendinger primarily made her mark as a screenwriter and script doctor, having her hands in Bring it On (her debut), Mean Girls, Sex and the City, Freaky Friday, Hitch, among others.  Stick It is superior to all of her written workdespite its modest box office returns, and I dearly hope she’s allowed to make another mid-range teen film soon. Her first book will be published in November, a paranormal romance called The Seven Rays.

5. Ti West (The Roost (2005), Trigger Man (2007), The House of the Devil (2009)):

In thrall to 80s horror without devolving into camp, Ti West makes solidly unpretentious scare films that actually take the time to build tension. Trigger Mancreates suspense out of a few guys in the Delaware woods, the sound of gunshots, and gallons of fake blood. Impressive scenes of wandering, small talk, getting to know you stuff. The kind of laid back character work needed to lay the hammer down later (Full disclosure: I work for Kino, the company that put this out on DVD). James Whale knew this, John Carpenter knew this, and now apparently, this indie director knows it too. The House of the Devil (image left) was picked up by Magnet Releasing (a subsidiary of Magnolia), a satan-worshipper film that bewtiches for its set design and performances as much for its gore. The long delayed sequel to Cabin Feveris still in post-production, and here’s hoping he won’t have to cut his films to ribbons upon his entree to Hollywood.