Lost in the Movies: September 2016

The Favorites - Scarface (#38)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Scarface (1983/USA/dir. Brian De Palma) appeared at #38 on my original list.

What it is • The only film on this list to remake another film on this list, Scarface updates the story of a ruthless Italian gangster in Prohibition Chicago for the 1980s, transforming Tony Camonte into the Cuban Mariel boatlift refugee Tony Montana and shifting locations to sun-struck, coke-fueled Miami. De Palma steps in for Howard Hawks, while Oliver Stone's screenplay adapts Ben Hecht's original. As might be expected based on that personnel switch, the violent, profanity-laden three-hour update trades economy for excess. In other ways, however, the films share a kindred spirit beyond their largely identical plot points and narrative arcs. Both embrace blunt dialogue and characterizations as quietly clever as they are superficially crude. Both center on larger-than-life performances from studious, serious actors embracing vulgarity and vitality as two sides of the same coin. Both embed their lowbrow pleasures in a sophisticated, imaginative visual style, rich with creative camera movements. The 1983 Scarface also has some distinctive qualities the earlier film lacks: a gorgeous, splashy color palette and an immediately evocative Giorgio Morodor electronic score. The film is gloriously trashy, but also wonderfully-executed and, most importantly, honest in its comprehension of Tony's ferocious desires and the world that flatters and frustrates him. That blimp may proclaim "The World is Yours!" but it will eventually reveal itself to be the Hindenburg.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Hyperballad (#39)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Hyperballad (1996/France/dir. Michel Gondry) appeared at #39 on my original list.

What it is • Bjork appears as an immobile sculpture, eyes closed in sleep - except when they briefly open - a tribute to the one moment of movement in Chris Marker's La Jetee? Simultaneously, she floats above as a sort of hologram, singing her song "Hyperballad" as the camera pivots around her form(s). Finally, most iconically, a video game avatar Bjork sprouts from the death mask-like visage and runs across the screen, the camera following her through a pixelated city, with the simple shapes of mountain peaks dominating the background. Michel Gondry's music video for this mid-nineties single touches on many of his favorite themes and motifs: simple, pleasing forms; a childlike sense of whimsy; multimedia interactions; the stark contrast of city and country. However, it also corresponds to the song's lyrics. Bjork sings a joyous ode to contemplating (and experimenting with) dangerous extremities each morning, before appreciatively returning to the security of her mountaintop home and the companionship of her still-sleeping lover. And the visuals reflect the gentle whirls and whoops of the electronic soundscape, a synthetic sound that feels organic. I only learned tonight, while reviewing a video I must have watched at least a dozen times, that all of "Hyperballad" was shot on a single roll of film, each layer of imagery exposed over the same frames. There's an incredible sense of natural movement to the effect despite the laserlike precision necessary to pull it off.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Daisies (#40)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Daisies (1966/Czechoslovakia/dir. Vera Chytilova) appeared at #40 on my original list.

What it is • Two girls named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová) cavort across a surreal cinematic landscape. I'm not sure how else to describe the setting - these are not the types of locations that are supposed to reflect an offscreen reality (nor do the characters seem to have any "backstory"). The tanning shacks, nightclubs, train stations, farms, and - most memorably - dining halls we visit don't exist in relation to one another, any more than a Western saloon and Gothic castle stacked side-by-side on a Hollywood soundstage. The Maries are a couple Sherlock, Jr.'s, leaping from film to film - or perhaps channel-surfers who have decided to wreak havoc on their favorite dating, fashion, and culinary reality shows. But even these useful comparisons are reductive, "explaining" what requires only immersion. The film toots along like a manic cut of punk pop and the best analogy might be to a loose, spontaneous early Looney Tune. Chytilova proves herself the long-lost distaff Slavic live-action twin of Tex Avery but the Czechoslovakian censors weren't laughing. They were desperately trying to squash the blossoming Prague Spring (one thinks of the Blue Meanies stomping every flower in sight, though the arrival of Soviet tanks in a couple years would put an end to such whimsical fancies). The authorities did not take this "lark" lightly in 1966, banning the film and reprimanding the fiery director. And indeed there is an undercurrent of darkness to the party onscreen, a vigorous anger undergirding the actions of Daisies' carefree apple-pluckers.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Through a Glass Darkly (#41)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Through a Glass Darkly (1961/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #41 on my original list.

What it is • Four characters - Karin (Harriet Andersson), who has just been treated for schizophrenia, her novelist father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), and her naive little brother Minus (Lars Passgard) - holiday on an isolated island. Emerging from the twilit sea, their boisterous laughter flickers on the soundtrack. The water looks cold, the light in the sky is dimming, and there is a fierce beauty to this image of fragile camaraderie. The chill they flee in this opening shot will catch up to them over the approaching night and following day, effecting a full transformation from curious, nervous innocence to devastating, irrevocable knowledge: most notably for the quietest character, Minus. The first film in Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy may, in its own way, be as iconic as The Seventh Seal. Its title, borrowed from Corinthians, has become a kind of shorthand for "serious art film" and its final twist is up there with the split faces of Persona or Death playing chess among classic Bergman images (though I'll admit when I first read about it as an over-imaginative kid, I thought they actually showed the damn spider sneaking out from behind the door, like in a monster movie...or like the oddly terrifying "god" marionette who pops out of a similar door in Bergman's much later Fanny and Alexander). The trailer for the film intones, through stodgy newspaper clippings (recommended by Bosley Crowther and the Academy Awards!) and somber, eat-your-vegetables narration, that this is A Very Serious Film for what Pauline Kael called "come dressed as the sick soul of Europe parties." But Through a Glass Darkly is as raw as it is austere. Buried in the severity of its reputation is the heartbreaking beauty of Sven Nykvist's gorgeous photography and Andersson's electric performance, a sensitive portrayal of madness. Although that's not quite correct...the film may be less about the direct experience of insanity than about the precarious nature of a moment's peace, the certainty that the drop is coming, and a vague euphoric thrill just before a precipitous descent.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - The Mother and the Whore (#42)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Mother and the Whore (1973/France/dir. Jean Eustache) appeared at #42 on my original list.

What it is • We meet Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young man in early seventies France, as he wakes up next to an unidentified woman and tiptoes out of the room without waking her up. Downstairs, he knocks on another door and asks a different woman if he can borrow her car. She agrees amiably, as if this happens all the time, and Alexandre is off to a cafe to browse for future conquests (including an ex-lover to whom he professes wounded, undying adoration; we - and ultimately she - see right through him). Alexandre doesn't appear to have a job. He lives with Marie (Bernadette Lafont), a shopkeeper who fulfills "the mother" role of the title (at times), taking care of him financially and willing to give him a tongue-lashing whenever he attempts to bullshit her. Early in the film, he meets Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), "the whore" of the title (again, ambivalently and more than a bit ironically). She is not literally a prostitute, and so the moniker (which she denies) is surprising in an age of supposed sexual liberation. She is a Polish emigre and hardworking nurse whose very casual promiscuity initially appears as frank and unapologetic as Alexandre's (and a good deal more honest). However, even more than the others, a deep pain reveals itself with time. These three characters intersect before Eustache's casual camera, in mostly unadorned rooms (Veronika's hospital grotto is one of the loneliest and most simply evocative I've seen in a movie) or bustling cafes (with the buzz of real-life conversation surrounding the actors). The film is almost entirely composed of their conversations, carried mostly by the mile-a-minute Alexandre. Its minimalistic content and lengthy form (close to four hours) suggest something perverse and uncinematic, yet The Mother and the Whore is utterly captivating, one of the most celebrated films of the seventies. It really has to be seen to be understood.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Rosemary's Baby (#43)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Rosemary's Baby (1968/USA/dir. Roman Polanski) appeared at #43 on my original list.

What it is • Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassevetes) move into the Bramford (really the infamous Dakota), a grand old New York building. Rosemary, who lacks a profession or the sharp personality of those around her, is initially overshadowed by more colorful characters like her eccentric neighbors, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). And yet the film is entirely centered around her point of view and as it progresses, our identification with her grows more and more intense. The central sequence in this development is one of the creepiest setpieces in horror history: Rosemary dreams/hallucinates/actually experiences a demonic ritual assault but wakes up the next day with only a foggy memory of what happened (therefore, the most important step of our identification with Rosemary occurs when we witness something that she herself is later unaware of). She begins to suspect her kooky neighbors and demure husband, a struggling actor, have wicked intentions for her unborn baby. The paranoia is palpable and the film is enveloped in a suffocating sense of suspense even though most viewers will have a pretty clear sense of what's going on (either going in or after the "dream"). That's because the tension results less from plot machinations than from Polanski's masterful sense of pace and atmosphere, and from the power of the central themes - a woman whose control over her life slips from her fingers, until she seems to be hemmed in from every corner - and Farrow's embodiment of these themes in her fragile form and quaking expression. Surprisingly, the film is often quite humorous, never more so than in its equal-parts terrifying/hilarious conclusion. Rosemary's Baby has a quintessentially fifties/sixties borderline-nihilist sick humor backed by a genuine sense of apocalyptic, barely-contained anxiety.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Out 1 (#44)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Out 1 (1971/France/dir. Jacques Rivette & Suzanne Schiffman) appeared at #46 on my original list.

What it is • Two theatrical troupes rehearse - if that's the proper term for their loose, playful methodology (one bemused director, played by Michael Lonsdale, remarks that their production of Prometheus Unbound has forgotten all about Prometheus). A pretty shopkeeper (Bulle Ogier, whom critic J. Hoberman described as "delightfully cannabisized" or something to that effect) spends most of her time lounging with purposeful-looking layabouts who apparently have some vague idea about starting an underground newspaper. Two strange, charismatic outcasts (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) enact cons - one by pretending he is a deaf-mute harmonicist, the other by flirting with men until their guard is down so she can steal their cash. These fragments circulate independently of one another - either amusingly or frustratingly depending on the viewer's mood - until they slowly, surely begin to coalesce. An actress (Hermine Karagheuz) passes a mysterious note to the young con man (an action she will later deny). The con woman steals letters from a bourgeois household which refer to murky, possibly dangerous liaisons. Connections are drawn to Honore de Balzac's History of the Thirteen, with its enigmatic conspirators drawing connections between disparate events, and Lewis Carrol's The Hunting of the Snark, a nonsense poem in which we strive for deeper meaning at our own peril. Is Out 1 a coded message whose non sequiturs and shaggy-dog storytelling conceal a fascinating secret (perhaps a metaphor for May '68, a meditation on dreams and reality, or a revelation of subconscious truths too uncanny to name)? Or is it a puzzle that purposefully doesn't add up, teasing and tricking us into creating links out of thin air, when the true pleasure is to be found in sitting back and letting the massive movie's sense of a playfully unfolding present wash over us? If both answers appeal to your sense of cinematic adventure, then this 13-hour opus (aired as a miniseries in the early seventies, and seldom screened since) may be for you.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Chinatown (#45)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Chinatown (1974/USA/dir. Roman Polanski) appeared at #45 on my original list.

What it is • It opens with old-fashioned credits, title cards with a classical font over an abstract sepia-toned background. Though made in the seventies, the film immediately pulls us back to the forties, the era of film noir, or perhaps even further into the thirties, when Chinatown is set. Then the first shot reveals something we never could have seen in actual Golden Age Hollywood: fairly graphic black-and-white photos of an extramarital sexual tryst. Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) carefully watches a cuckolded husband (Burt Young) flip through the sordid stills and immediately three important aims are achieved: we learn about Jake's dirty business, a relatively honest living in a crooked town; we meet a very minor character whose story purpose will pay off later; and we realize something important - this film will lure us in with nostalgia, but its outlook is clear-eyed and unsentimental. Like three of the last five films on the list, and like the film I am immersed in at the time of this writing (the not-so-unrelated O.J.: Made in America), Chinatown takes place in - and is very much about - Los Angeles. Screenwriter Robert Towne was eager to convey his view of William Mulholland's real-life water scheme via the fictionalized story of Noah Cross (John Huston), a charismatic, deeply corrupt businessman who may be involved in diverting water from farmland so that drought-affected L.A. will have to push outward to the Pacific. Some people stand to make a killing on real estate - even if a few other people have to be killed for getting in the way. As Gittes investigates, he falls in love with a mysterious, possibly dangerous young widow (Faye Dunaway) and discovers dark secrets both societal and personal.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - The Big Lebowski (#46)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Big Lebowski (1998/USA/dir. Ethan & Joel Coen) appeared at #46 on my original list.

What it is • Following their Best Picture-nominated Fargo (1996), the Coen brothers made what appeared to be a lark. Chronicling the misadventures of Jeff Lebow...er, the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a Los Angeles layabout who becomes entangled with a kidnapping plot, the film seems to have been fairly well-received. That said, I recall - and re-examining the evidence bears this out - quite a bit of critical bafflement. Not only were the reviews perplexed by the film's gleefully convoluted plot, they were struck by such a trivial follow-up to the most acclaimed work of the Coens' career (the most recent film to land on the AFI's Top 100 in 1998). If the critics were mostly mildly amused, the audience didn't seem particularly engaged at all - the film barely made back its budget. Two years later, the Coens' O Brother Where Art Thou? grossed nearly five times the amount of The Big Lebowski and in 2007 the brothers won the Best Director award that had eluded them for Fargo, this time for the somber, impeccably-executed No Country for Old Man (which, incidentally grossed ten times as much as Lebowski). Overall, they've directed fourteen films in the eighteen years since their little Lebowski floated lazily in and out of theaters, many highly acclaimed and several reaching a wide audience. Hovering just around sixty, they have years of prolific filmmaking ahead. And yet there is a very good chance that this will remain their most beloved film for the foreseeable future, and likely the work they will be most fondly remembered for. Wikipedia sums it up best with the following juxtaposition:
Peter Howell, in his review for the Toronto Star, wrote: "It's hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of Fargo." ... [Howell] more recently stated that "it may just be my favourite Coen Bros. film."
Why I like it •

The Favorites - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (#47)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992/USA/dir. David Lynch) appeared at #47 on my original list.

What it is • Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) lives in a nice neighborhood in the bucolic Pacific Northwest town of Twin Peaks. She is a popular high school girl whose world seems idyllic. But a cloud falls over her expression once she steps away from her demure best friend Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) and sneaks into a bathroom stall for a bump of cocaine. Later, she tells one boyfriend James Hurley (James Marshall) to "Quit holding on, I'm long gone..." and then mocks her other boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) to his face. When she and her friend sit lazily on sofas to discuss boys, poetry, and hypotheticals about "falling through space," Laura's response evinces an acute desperation that her friend doesn't really understand. Only when Laura returns home alone and discovers pages torn from her secret diary does the trouble really begin - at least for us in the audience. For Laura, the trouble has been going on for at least five years, involving repeated rape and psychological torment by the mysterious "BOB" (Frank Silva), a creepy long-haired man who climbs through her window at night, although she grows to suspect, rightly, that there's more to this image than what she's seeing. Mystical as the flavor of the film is at times - it features eerie dreams, uncanny figures, and visits to otherworldly realms - its suffering is grounded in real human emotion. The first forty minutes play like a massive red herring, in which we follow an FBI investigation into a murder on the other side of the state. The victim's (and killer's) relationship to Laura is eventually revealed, but the characters and tone of this sequence lull us into thinking Fire Walk With Me will be one type of film (an offbeat, archly comic murder mystery), when in fact it is something else entirely: one of the most empathetic portraits of sexual violence ever placed on a screen.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (#48)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973/USA/dir. Sam Peckinpah) appeared at #48 on my original list.

What it is • Pat Garrett (James Coburn), an old friend of robber and gunslinger Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), has taken a job as sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico. His first visit to Billy is cheerful but foreboding, filled with a mutual understanding that their interests are slowly being pulled apart. Warm feelings aside, they will inevitably become enemies. Over the rest of the film, that understanding is borne out by events, as Garrett attacks and arrests Billy, then pursues him once he dodges the hangman. The dance of death is a game in this movie, in the classic fashion of westerns where lawmen and outlaws can fluidly switch sides, where each side knows the rules, and where all parties abide by a certain code of honor and respect...at least initially (in one version of Pat Garrett, the director himself pops up in a cameo near the end, to call the film's "hero" a "chickenshit badge-wearing sonofabitch"). Against such a backdrop, the violence could seem arbitrary, like a gladiatorial contest to prove who's the toughest, cleverest, and/or fastest draw. But this dance of death is also determined by larger, more powerful forces - in this case, Governor Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) and the Santa Fe Ring, a cabal of wealthy, corrupt individuals who will eventually target Garrett as well. In real life, near as I can tell, Gov. Wallace (who incidentally wrote Ben-Hur, itself about a friendship falling prey to political power) actually fought against the notorious Ring. Within the film, however, we are given a sense of power operating without any moral considerations. The outlaws are certainly no worse than the politicians, and may be more honest: certainly Garrett does not come off well with his pitiless pursuit of old friends and adherence to a well-paying cause he doesn't believe in. To observe that the violence onscreen is meaningless is not to suggest it lacks gravity. This is most evident in the scene where Sheriff Colin Baker (Slim Pickens) is wounded in a shootout. He crawls off to stare at the dusk while his wife (Katy Jurado) drops to a knee at his side, tears streaming down her face. Depending which version of the film you see (and hear) "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" emerges on the soundtrack either with Bob Dylan's voice crackling in our ears or simply as a poignant instrumental (save for that spooky humming). Pickens turns to look past the camera with a haunted expression that speaks just as loudly as the iconic music. This overwhelming realization of mortality is among the most moving sequences I've ever witnessed in a work of art.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Murder, My Sweet (#49)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Murder, My Sweet (1944/USA/dir. Edward Dmytryk) appeared at #49 on my original list.

What it is • Raymond Chandler has been treated on the big screen many times; this particular novel was adapted again in the seventies under its original title (Farewell, My Lovely), with no less a noir luminary than Robert Mitchum in the lead. The most infamous actor to portray Philip Marlowe is, of course, Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep but if you're seeking an offbeat alternative, you'd naturally be tempted to go with Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye (I have some respectful issues with Robert Altman's take on Chandler, but this isn't the time or place). Too frequently overlooked, however, is the first Marlowe: song-and-dance man Dick Powell, looking remarkably world-weary a decade past his bright-eyed Busby Berkeley days. Murder, My Sweet is not the first Chandler adaptation (it isn't even the first adaptation of Farewell, since two years earlier The Falcon Takes Over had borrowed its plot wholesale) but earlier incarnations of his work had changed the name of the detective hero, as if it didn't even matter. Of course it matters. Marlowe is one of the most iconic characters in modern fiction and Powell's stoic, exhausted, but forthright version of the private eye honors its literary source. In some ways, this Marlowe may actually be closer than Bogie's (whose own star power may have obscured the character's nature). Ultimately, though, the film is here for its intoxicating atmosphere, the most perfect evocation of noir's je ne sais quoi that I've ever encountered, thick with fog, chiaroscuro, wet streets, tightly packed deep frames, harsh lights hitting the lens, and that gorgeous, gorgeous shot of a femme fatale embracing our skeptical hero as her cigarette smoke curls in the air beside him. So that's "what it is." The murder mystery plot? Please, don't make me try to explain that! I've forgotten the details and always have trouble following these sorts of stories as they unfold, with their bewildering array of suspects, double crosses, and red herrings. I'm not sure even Chandler knew what was going on, though Marlowe himself probably had it all figured.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - A Walk Through H (#50)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. A Walk Through H (1978/UK/dir. Peter Greenaway) appeared at #50 on my original list.

What it is • The screen is occupied by a succession of drawings, caught somewhere between outlandish abstraction and ridiculously detailed cartography. The soundtrack is occupied by narration and an occasional burst of frenzied music, the narration leaning to the latter reading - in fact, our guide specifically refers to the sketches as maps - while the music often accompanies activity, be it quick cutting or zooms. At a glance, this is perhaps the simplest film on the list, a thirty-five minute journey through an art gallery with a voiceover telling us stories we can hear but not see. The deeper we dig, however, A Walk Through H is actually an incredibly complex experience. The drawings are both ornate and suggestive, not entirely obscure but with a significance just out of reach - like we're waking from a dream. The narration jauntily assumes our familiarity (or rather, hinges on our baffled amusement) with a dense mythology of people and places as if we've just cracked open a spin-off book attached to a central text we never read. The deadpan non sequiturs and Carollesque absurdities are amusing on their own terms, but all the more intriguing for their offhand references to a bigger story. This was one of Greenaway's earliest works, and while his later films (like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and A Zed and Two Naughts) would grow ever-bolder in their fusion of obsessive categorization and bohemian experimentation, A Walk Through H remains the purest expression of his unique sensibility.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Pinocchio (#51)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Pinocchio (1940/USA/prod. Walt Disney) appeared at #51 on my original list.

What it is • A little puppet wants to be a real boy. Or rather his creator Geppeto wishes he could be, and once this wish is granted by the Blue Fairy, the boy himself wishes to take this all the way. He can talk, walk, sing, and dance, but he's still made of wood, not flesh and bone. His humanity will be granted, and his nose will remain its proper length, only if he can obey a moral code, for which a cricket - named Jiminy in this film - offers his services. In the nineteenth-century fable by Carlo Collidi, on which Pinocchio is based, the puppet responds be squashing and killing his pesky wannabe conscience. That's not the only difference between source and adaptation; the original, serialized version of the story concluded with little Pinocchio's body hanging lifelessly from a tree where two villains had hanged him (though Collidi later updated the book to create a happier ending, at an editor's requests). Naturally Walt Disney changed these plot points; nonetheless, Pinocchio is one of the darker, edgier features his studio released, shadowed by the ferocious Monstro, the vicious puppet trafficker Stromboli, and especially the sin-happy, hellfire-tempting (or rather donkey tail-tempting) Pleasure Island where little boys scream for their mothers before being mutated into animals who will be sent to slave away in salt mines. If the content is rather mature, the style is even more so: a beautiful advance on the already striking form of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with rich colors, layered visuals, and frames bursting with complex activity. The film flopped in 1940 but has been treasured ever since, not just by the children it was directly targeted towards, but to adults who still shiver at its haunting images and delight in its imaginative tapestry.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Mean Streets (#52)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Mean Streets (1973/USA/dir. Martin Scorsese) appeared at #52 on my original list.

What it is • Part crime genre, part art film; part Cassavetes, part Bertolucci; defined by both handheld grittiness and graceful camera dollies, Mean Streets announces Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker interested in all forms of cinema. His third film is deeply personal with universal aspirations, a Catholic film in more senses than one. Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a petty debt collector in early seventies Little Italy, is caught in the crossfire - at first just figuratively - between his responsibility to his gangster uncle (Cesare Danova), his loyalty to his dangerously irreverant cousin Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), his love for the epileptic Teresa (Amy Robinson), and his guilt-ridden Catholic faith. The plot's certainly not irrelevant to the film's priorities - far from it - but the experience still registers less as a narrative machine than as a flowing succession of moments, defined by performance, musical accompaniment, camera movement, and in some of its boldest moments, the arresting cuts that would come to define Scorsese's touch (rendered this time by Sidney Levin, rather than usual collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker). Like many other films on the list, Mean Streets isn't present so much for its story as for the way that story is told.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - L'Eclisse (#53)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. L'Eclisse (1962/Italy/dir. Michelangelo Antonioni) appeared at #53 on my original list.

What it is • The story? Vittoria (Monica Vitti) breaks up with her boyfriend, and begins a romance with a young stockbroker (Alain Delon) in chic early sixties Rome. But is that really what the film "is"? At the very least, it's a stunningly photographed film, with some of the most gorgeous images in cinema history. But there are many films with jaw-dropping cinematography which nonetheless feel vapid - hell, a lot of TV commercials are quite nice to look at. L'Eclisse is something more. Like the greatest examples of still photography, L'Eclisse uses inventive compositions to capture our eye, stirring our senses on a fundamental level we weren't even aware of. Objects loom unusually in the frame, conjuring up uncanny sensations, while the actors' expressions convey deep sensitivity yet maintain an intriguing reserve. Even more importantly, this is cinema, not still photography. Antonioni is a master of subtle, arresting movement - of both camera and subject: sometimes only the actor's faces flicker or flinch but that's enough to thrill us. I can't find the exact quote, but Antonioni once claimed to be driving along a road flanked by a scenic landscape on the one side and rundown, abandoned industry on the other. He recalled shifting his gaze over to the empty factories, despite the natural beauty out one window. Why? Because "people had been there." However alienating/alienated his characters, however much he privileges the blocking and movement of performers over their dialogue, however dominated by empty space his frames can be, Antonioni's pictorialism is ultimately defined by a deep humanism.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - 2001: A Space Odyssey (#54)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968/USA/dir. Stanley Kubrick) appeared at #54 on my original list.

What it is • The best films are often improbable. 2001: A Space Odyssey towers over the cinematic landscape fifty years later, but step back from that familiar reputation and what remains is as strange and sui generis as that smooth black monolith in the midst of the craggy desert. What can explain the existence of a film that manages to straddle both genre filmmaking and the avant-garde? A film that embraces state-of-the-art special effects alongside esoteric storytelling? A film that embodies, transcends, and transforms notions of cinema? Well, to start with, many can (and do) say the film is cold and alienating; others categorize it as an overwhelmingly powerful aesthetic experience. It's a film with what seems to be a humanist message but its approach is anything but humanist; as many have noted, the most likable character is a murderous computer. This quintessential "future" film (which from today's standpoint, of course, is set in an alternate past) begins millions of years ago with apes developing their first "technology": a bone wielded as a weapon to defend against predators, vanquish prey, and attack one another. Flash forward to 2001, and we have, actually, an anthology of sci-fi stories to tell; interrelated, but with different aims and often different characters (yet somehow the movie feels all of a piece). The overarching thread involves a sleek monolith, like the one that triggered the apes' breakthrough, discovered on the moon, while another has been detected further out in the solar system, with two astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) assigned to make contact with it. The most memorable section of the film is, superficially at least, a sidenote to the rest of the story - the breakdown of HAL-9000, a placid-toned, deeply neurotic machine that refuses to believe in its own vulnerability. Finally, our interstellar journey that began in a prehistoric desert ends in a timeless white room, proving that images which initially seem incongruous end up lingering in memory, and becoming the most iconic images of all.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Historias Extraordinarias (#55)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Historias Extraordinarias (2008/Argentina/dir. Mariano Llinas) appeared at #55 on my original list.

What it is • It's a shambling shaggy-dog story told around a campfire (or better yet, around the smoldering ashes of a campfire the following, foggy morning - that's an image that suits its vibe much better). Or it's an epic tome thick not just with evocative words but suggestive sketches and lavish illustrations, so heavy you can barely lift it off the table or close it when you're ready to take a break - not that you'd want to. It's a cinematic endurance test of the most pleasurable kind, a charming, drifting variation on the visions of Tarr or Rivette; it's a winding boat trip down a leisurely flowing river; it's a daydream conjured while sitting at your desk in the back of a drab but cozy bureaucratic office buried in a nondescript building in a backwater burg located somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Historias Extraordinarias is all of these things - but specifically it is a 2008 four-hour Argentine feature film directed by Mariano Llinas, documenting three characters whose adventures - fleeing criminals after witnessing a killing, transporting possibly illegal goods down a river, and hunting an off-kilter treasure - take them through the urban and rural landscapes of Argentina at a leisurely, but never less than absorbing, pace. I rarely attend film festivals, but I stumbled across this movie when it was screened at a branch-off of the Maine International Film Festival when I was covering independent films for the Examiner website - a tangent so ordinary yet unlikely that Llinas himself might have come up with it. I was captivated and wrote about Historias Extraordinarias soon after; it remains one of the few under-the-radar films I ever beat Allan Fish to the punch on, that's for sure! (Though he wrote his own evocative review soon after.) The film remains hard to see, unfortunately, but that makes me all the more grateful I caught it when I did. Details of the plot remain hazy, but what lingers is the rare mood and tone of the thing, a light sort of magic you don't find every day - even though it's right there embedded in the "everyday", waiting to be discovered.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - The Last of the Mohicans (#56)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Last of the Mohicans (1992/USA/dir. Michael Mann) appeared at #56 on my original list.

What it is • Michael Mann, best known for his cool contemporary urban crime masterworks, stepped out of character in 1992 to adapt a 1936 film based on an 1826 novel set during a 1757 war. Sometimes a fish out of water just flops, but Last of the Mohicans shows that Mann can soar as well as swim. In the film, Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adopted Mohican family guide Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) and several other English subjects through the wilderness in the midst of the French-Indian War - but the plot is essentially a framework for several stunning setpieces, none more astonishing than the climactic chase up a hill. That sequence begins with a noble self-sacrifice of a normally not very likable character, and ends with deadly combat between one of the heroes (but not the main one) and the main villain. More importantly, it is as good a primer on the use of montage, music, and movement in cinema as anything I know. The whole film is excellent, with explosive battles, smoldering romantic embraces, quiet moments of human connection, and breathtaking landscapes, but that particular moment - a moment that extends for nine tense, throbbing minutes - is sublime. Writing this entry, I paused to watch a clip online and had to stop myself before watching the whole thing again (I'm trying to be economical at present, and am no longer watching extended clips, let alone whole movies, before writing about my Favorites). No matter how many times I've seen The Last of the Mohicans, that ending always carries an incredible punch.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Casablanca (#57)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Casablanca (1942/USA/dir. Michael Curtiz) appeared at #57 on my original list.

What it is • Do I really need to tell you? The legend of Casablanca is well-established by now, although I also have to wonder if its star hasn't dimmed a little in recent years. Even for very young viewers in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, its zeitgeist seemed within reach - the World War II generation was still very much among us and this film belonged to our grandparents' generation; with constant TV and film references, black-and-white classic Hollywood felt a stone's throw away, culturally, even as it was a half-century or more in the past; and Casablanca was one of the most accessible titles at a time when classics were not so easy to see. Today, the youngest WWII veteran is eighty-nine, a teenager has grandparents who grew up with Saturday morning cartoons not Hollywood double features at the local movie palace, and most new releases reflect video-game or comic-book aesthetics rather than Old Hollywood. So, then, a quick explanation: Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is an American in North Africa early in World War II, after France had fallen to the Nazis and before his own home country, neutral like him, had committed to the fight for freedom. Rick lived in Paris before the German invasion, romancing a young widow who, as it turns out, was not as widowed as they both thought she was. Now the lady Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) shows up at Rick's fashionable cafe/casino with husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a member of the Resistance. Rick must decide between helping or punishing her old lover, honoring a worthy cause or maintaining his steadfast, above-it-all cynicism. Romantic heartbreak, but also commitment to political action, are the subjects of Casablanca.

Why I like it •

The Favorites - Annie Hall (#58)

After a five-month hiatus, THE FAVORITES will now run daily until it concludes with the #1 entry on November 6, nearly four years to the day after the series began.

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Annie Hall (1977/USA/dir. Woody Allen) appeared at #58 on my original list.

What it is • After about a decade crafting his "early funny ones" - light-hearted but socially-savvy comedies with as much desire to be "realistic" as a Chaplin fantasy and as much room for sentiment as a Marx Brothers farce - Woody Allen...matured. I use that word hesitatingly, but as an artist there can be no doubt Annie Hall develops his early themes in new, fascinating directions, both narratively and stylistically. Despite its bouts of whimsy, the comedy is very much anchored in the real world, specifically the relationship travails of hip, youngish New Yorkers in the mid-seventies, a distinct, unusual, and - let's face it - attractive milieu and zeitgeist. Alvy Singer (Allen) is a neurotic, wisecracking, Jewish comedian dating the eccentric, wacky, WASPy Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). A podcast I was listening to recently dismissed her as "the first manic pixie dream girl" but I'd more charitably note that Annie Hall subverts and reverses many of those tropes even as it establishes them (in some ways, the film is more about the life-altering intervention of a "neurotic leprechaun nightmare boy"). The presentation of this story is both more disciplined and more in step with Allen's creative early work; despite the naturalistic setting, he isn't afraid to deploy many of the same devices and self-referential gags he featured in the sci-fi dystopia of Sleeper or the cartoon communist dictatorship of Bananas. But these frequent departures from reality are much more than non sequiturs. They build character and expand the narrative. See the interactive split-screen therapy sessions; the subtitles showing embarrassed thoughts behind sophisticated chatter; an out-of-body spectral Annie rising from the bed to coldly observe herself having boring sex; an animated Snow White pastiche with Annie as the Evil Queen and Allen as a hectoring dwarf; Marshall McLuhan stepping into a movie theater to correct an obnoxious theatergoer (okay, maybe that one's just a one-off gag but I love how it anticipates the advent of Twitter celebrity tag-ins). The film beat Star Wars (among others) for Best Picture, and while Oscar's yearly selections often miss the forest for the trees, Annie Hall still feels fresh and original (but also a wistful time capsule) nearly forty years later.

Why I like it •

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