Monday, May 7, 2012

Sight and Sound Movie List - Le Malon

I don't watch a lot of movies. This wasn't always the case. I used to watch them all the time, especially from the time I was 17 through 22. It started when I joined a film club in high school that introduced me to "Night of the Living Dead," the zombie classic. At this point, my friends and I started our own separate club called the "Nefarious Palladins," and built a gigantic list of movies we simply had to see. Everything from classics like "Vertigo" and "Citizen Kane," to weirdo favorites like "Brazil." This interest in films expanded once I went to college, especially after I became friends with The McBee, and even moreso after I took a film studies course (with the great Jeff Middents) my freshman year. 

I don't know exactly why I stopped watching movies. But the excuses I can think of are all poor. Some of it is being a workaholic. Some of it is being addicted to connection. I need, in fact crave, social interaction. 2 hours blacked out from it fills me with anxiety. While traveling on Friday, I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic postulating that Facebook is making us more lonely. One statement in particular stuck with me: 

"But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect."The need to disconnect as a protection against loneliness is a reason to watch movies again. So is the frustration of my patient and saint-like wife, who is usually not thrilled when my answer to her question, "do you want to see a movie?" is "no." We need movies. We need the escape, we need the process of stepping outside of ourselves to experience life from another point of view. 

So what follows is a list of movies. I am not an expert. There are many films in the "canon" that I have not watched. But I have watched some. And because I am by nature obnoxious, I will blatantly violate Evan's rules and - in addition to listing my ten favorite films - list five movies I hate and five guilty pleasures. 

5 Movies I Hate
Of course I am going to start by being negative. These movies aren't all necessarily "bad." I just hate them, or I hate specific aspects of them enough to render them unwatchable to me. 

5) [Tie] All "slasher" movies
     All of them. I hate the genre. I hate the misogyny. I hate the gratuitous violence. I hate that these films have an attitude towards sexuality that would make the Puritans accuse them of being uptight. They have no artistic value other than to fit in with a reactionary cultural attitude that was all too common amongst some Americans when films like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" came out. These films are nothing more than "slut-shaming" with fake blood. 

4) Dave (1993 dir. Ivan Reitman)
    Okay, I'm cheating here. Dave is actually a cute little movie. Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, Signourney Weaver all give fun performances, and the set-up of a presidential lookalike who has to assume the duties of the office is a fantasy that only Hollywood could make charming. But I hate its politics. Because if anyone takes it seriously enough, they will come away with the misguided notion that solving the complex problems that our complex nation faces is a simple task. It's not. So whenever I see the famous scene where Dave and the accountant played by Charles Grodin magically solve the nation's deficit, I want to take a cue from Economist Koosh and scream "WHY ARE YOU BETRAYING THE PRINCIPLES LAID OUT BY ALEXANDER HAMILTON?!!!" And I want to inform them that solving complex problems is never that simple, and shame on them for telling people that it is. 

3) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939 dir. Frank Capra)
Though I hate the politics as much, if not more, than I hate the politics of "Dave," unlike "Dave" I actually think this is a crappy movie. It is cornball beyond repair. Please tell me, dear Mr. Capra, what "graft" is Mr. Smith so appalled by. A dam (that will create jobs and result in a stronger economy)? It is never clear. Only that this absolute idiot thinks that the purpose of Congress is to create the equivalence of boy scout camps, rather than addressing real bread and butter concerns. The movie is the fantasy of a naive fool, poorly written and poorly acted. And ignorant (I hope) of the fact that the filibuster was for years the primary tactic used by white supremacist Senators to block civil rights bills. 

2) Back to the Future (1985 dir. Robert Zemeckis)
    I know I know; I'm a jerk for hating this movie. But I do. There are good moments, particularly the ones that involve Crispin Glover. But it is too sentimental, too self-aware, too in awe of the "hey, let's have Marty shock people with THE FUTURE" script elements. And am I the only one who is unnerved by the suggestion that Chuck Berry stole his greatest hit by some snot-nosed white kid from the 80s?

1) Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986 dir. John Hughes)
    My venom towards this waste of valuable film equipment is equal only to my contempt for anyone who flies a Confederate flag and "Kokomo" by the "Beach Boys." A few things to note: 1) Ferris is an awful person. Self-absorbed and uncaring about the consequences of his actions, he is everyone's worst nightmare of a spoiled rich kid. Yet the movie tells us we're supposed to like him? 2) How disturbing is it that we're supposed to applaud his vanquishing and humiliation of Principal Rooney? Yes, that horrible middle-class civil servant had the TEMERITY to ask the spoiled and entitled Ferris to actually attend class. 3) This film is truly representative of the Reagan-era 80s. Selfishness without regard for the consequences of your actions on other people? It's the Gordon Gekko gospel. In the real life sequel, Ferris is a stockbroker in 2008 for Lehman Brothers, being sued for sexual harassment, and making the deals that lead to the collapse of the financial sector. I hate this movie. I hate everyone in it. I hate everything it espouses. I am filled with rage whenever someone I normally like expresses their admiration of it. 

5 Awesomely Bad Movies I LoveWow, my list of movies I hate makes me seem like a humorless curmudgeon. That's false - I'm not humorless. In fact, I love a lot of movies, particularly comedies and action films, that are frankly kind of bad. If we all took ourselves seriously 100% of the time, we'd be miserable. So here are some pleasures I absolutely do not feel guilty about. 

5) AnchormanThe Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004, dir. Adam McKay)
    One of the most hilariously quotable movies of the past 20 years. It feels as though Will Ferrell is improvising most of the time, trying to see how ridiculous he can get before it causes a co-star to break into laughter on tape. It's a canned script, but that irrelevant. I feel like this entire category can be defined by an Anchorman quote: "You pooped in the refrigerator and ate an entire wheel of cheese? I'm not even mad, that's amazing!"

4) Porky's (1982, dir. Bob Clark)
   This is the movie American Pie wanted to be. A gross-out teenage sex comedy before they were the norm. Siskel and Ebert called it one of the worst films of 1982. And it probably is. But I don't care. Unlike Ferris Bueller, the boys with misguided priorities in Porky's will probably not grow up to be sociopaths. They're a bunch of hilariously horny teenagers in 1954, trying as hard as they can to obtain their version of the holy grail, and failing gloriously every step of the way. Porky's also tries to show that it has a conscious, too, with its subplot about one of the boys being Jewish and facing anti-semitism. Does it make you think deeply about prejudice? Of course not. But it does, somehow, fit in seemlessly to the plot as the boys try to foil Porky and his band of crooked redneck sheriff's deputies. And unlike all the gross-out comedies of the 90s, it shows real heart in the process. 

3) Die Hard (1988 dir. John McTiernen)
    The true measure of how successful you've been at permeating American culture? When you're used as a benchmark in blockbuster movie production. The number of action movies post-Die Hard to be described as "Die Hard on a ____" is amazing [Note: I just discovered that Wikipedia said this in a similar way; any resemblance is unintentional.] "Speed" was "Die Hard on a bus." "Sudden Death" with Jean Claude van Damme is Die Hard in a hockey rink. But much like movie #2 on this list, there can only be one. You have all of the elements of a great action movie, plus a bloody Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman being Alan Rickmanish, and Reginald VelJohnson (that's right, Carl Winslow from "Family Matters"). Die Hard. It's like Die Hard, in an office building. 

2) Highlander (1986 dir. John Mulcahy)
    THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE! What, you find a movie about immortal scottish warriors who can only die when killed by other highlanders until the one true highlander remains unrealistic? Clearly, any movie that features Sean Connery as Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez is dedicated to realism. And swordfighting! Lots of sword-fighting! And kilts and 80s hair! How can you not like this movie?

1) Commando (1985 dir. Mark L. Lester)
     Arnold at his finest. You have problems with continuity. You have guns that never run out of bullets. You have a car that totals itself one minute, and then drives away unscathed the next. You have a guy being held over a cliff with the safety wire visible. And through it all, you have the Arnold one-liners. One of the most amazingly awesome films ever created. I'm so glad that Arnold guy never went on to hold public office...............oh...........

OK, here are my favorite 10 films

Honorable Mention: American Beauty (1999 dir. Sam Mendes)

I saw this film at the old Keystone Theater on Congress Street in Portland when it came out. It hasn't held up. But it served as the gateway drug for me to watch movies in a different way. The screenplay is overwrought (and perfectly tailored for an emo teenager), but the acting is superb and the cinematography is stunning. Great soundtrack, several funny moments, and a schoolboy crush on Thora Birch, and you have a movie that can entrance a wild-eyed 17 year old. 

10) Los Olvidados (1950 dir. Luis Bunuel)
      One of three Middents-inspired selections, Los Olvidados - spanish for "the forgotten ones," is a Mexican masterpiece from 1950. Bracingly realistic, and hauntingly tragic, this depiction of life as a poor boy in Mexico City has stuck with me ever since the one time I watched it (in 2001). "City of God" doesn't happen without this movie. 

9)  High Fidelity (2000 dir. Stephen Frears)
A cautionary tale for a music geek like me. Great soundtrack, great use of John Cusack breaking the fourth wall, and a compelling tale of the maturation of a too-cool-for-school kind of guy who never really grew up. 

8)  Cinema Paradiso (1988, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore)
A love letter to the movies. It is sappy, sentimental, and corny. And I love every minute. Sometimes you have to drop your guard and let your feelings take over. Tornatore's passion is infectious. 

7)  Born on the Fourth of July (1989, dir. Oliver Stone)
I firmly believe that one's political maturity can be determined by how much stock they put into Oliver Stone's movies. The more you find "back...and to the left" to be serious commentary rather than unintentional hilarity, the more I want you to stay the heck away from politics. But "Born on the Fourth of July" is different. First, it is someone else's autobiography, so Stone has less leeway to mess around. Second, it is personal in it's focus. The film takes you from Kovic's innocent patriotism, to the horrors of war, the horror of only partially surviving, and the humiliation of not receiving any support or understanding once he returns home. There are no conspiracy theories. Just one man's story. And in restraining his worst impulses, Stone makes the most effective political statement of his career. 

6) Serenity (2005, dir. Joss Whedon)
I'm the worst sci-fi nerd ever. I am thoroughly unversed in the genre, and never actually watched the Firefly series. In some ways, I think that enhanced my enjoyment of "Serenity." The space opera George Lucas wishes he made, unlike Lucas Serenity actually embraces human emotion. It covers every range of emotion, and embraces an anti-utopian political message I can get behind. Few movies have left me feeling more satisfied. 

5) The Barbarian Invasions (2003, dir. Denys Arcand)
A French-Canadian film (hooray for Quebec!) about an old libertine professor's slow death from cancer. Sounds like a barrel of laughs! Actually, it is. Simultaneously hard to watch on a visceral level, and hilarious beyond words - this might be one of the greatest humanist films I have ever seen. Reny never seems to fully grasp that all of his irresponsibility and womanizing has had negative consequences, but he does have a bit of recognition. And the film is brave enough to have him talk about his intellectual development, marching onward as a dying man talks about philosophy with his friends...until the very moment he reaches his end. It's not easy, but it is absolutely fulfilling. 

4) Once (2006, dir. John Carney)
So "Once" likely doesn't deserve to be in the top-5 of any list of the best movies ever made. But it's one of my favorites. It is short, with sparse dialogue and characters that don't even have names. They are lonely, romantic people, whose life is defined by music. Their friendship, and almost-romance, fills that void and reinvigorates them both. Some movies don't need to be elaborate to have an impact. Some don't have to say much at all. This low-budget little Irish movie floored me. 

3) Chinatown (1974, dir. Roman Polanski)
What's the opposite of uplifting? Chinatown, by Roman Polanski. Like Los Olvidados, Chinatown is a bracingly depressing film that never gives you a light at the end of the tunnel. If anything, it drives its fist deeper into your stomach the farther it goes. It's film noir taken to its logical conclusion - the darkest, most depraved depths of humanity. 

2) The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Part 1, of course. Part 2 is great, but tries to do too much. 1 (as the guys in the Sopranos call it) has been written about thousands of times. From the masterful opening sequence, to the baptism assassinations of the film's climax. For me, my favorite scene is the hospital scene, where Michael does what he has to do to save his father's life with effectiveness that I think even surprises him. It's done out of genuine fear, and genuine love for his family. It's when he rejoins the family business, and sets into motion the events that lead to his rise to power and moral decline. While writing this, the song "Love Love Love" by the Mountain Goats came to mind. It fits. 

1) Casablanca (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)
On September 12, 2001, when American University's student body was still shocked and scared to the core - especially freshmen like me - the students of Professor Middents's Critical Approach to Cinema class showed up to the Wednesday 8am film screening. I wasn't sure if we needed to or not; no one had made it clear whether classes were mandatory that day. But I showed up anyways. The professor told us we didn't have to be there, but since we were, he was going to show us a movie anyways. Nothing in the syllabus, just the film that he wanted to see, and that he thought most appropriate for the occasion. From there, I watched "Casablanca" for the first time. It's a flawed film, but a perfect one. Flawed in how out of data it seems, especially in its chauvinism. But perfect in the sense that it understood its moment. And is applicable to so many other moments. It's not a World War II film, it's a film about people discovering a purpose greater than themselves. And while I cannot speak for anyone else, when I watched it on that beautiful September day, I was able to disconnect in that way the article about loneliness talks about - disconnection as a means of connecting deeper with humanity.

Click here for Der Fersko's movie list
Click here for The McClure's movie list
Click here for a worse movie list

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