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The BBC’s Greatest 21st Century Films

About a month ago, I heard about the BBC polling 177 critics on their Top 10 Best Films of the Century thus far and putting all their results together to craft a 100 Best Movies of the 21st Century. The list has no been revealed on their site. And now I’m taking a lookseeatit and giving some of my remarks (though I won’t actually be copying and pasting the list here. You can check on that link).

The amount of movies on the list that I haven’t seen is pretty much two.

  • Toni Erdmann (obviously!) – no. 100
  • Son of Saul – no. 34

Which on one hand means I am almost entirely familiar with what they’ve selected to react upon, but on the other disappoints me because I really was hoping this list would introduce titles to me rather than tell how good so-and-so movie I already saw is. For the most part, that’s fine if somewhat a nuisance since I actually really like a good amount of the list, including the number one winner Mulholland Dr. which I’d call an essential watch. The unfortunate thing is that when it gets to movies I don’t care for (like no. 17 – The White Ribbon) or don’t like (no. 20 – Synecdoche, New York) and tries to sell me on their profundity it becomes quite exhausting. But that’ll always be the way you are when people are praising art you don’t care for, no matter how open we are to other perspectives.

I also find it extremely alarming that we have a dearth of animated films represented. There is a whopping total of… 5. Just five animated films. Four of which are Pixar films (no. 96 – Finding Nemo; no. 93 – Ratatouille; no. 41 – Inside Out; no. 29 – WALL-E) and the odd man out is a Ghibli film (no. 4 – Spirited Away). No Laika, no Chomet, no Hertzfeldt, no Kon, among other things (I’d lament the absence of Disney but nobody wants to be Frozen‘s champion except me). It both paints a disinterest in animation as an artform as well as a complete monopoly to the international animation market as well.

In the meantime, despite a hella lot of popular fare, especially Oscar nominees (The Film Experience marked down all the ones that were nominated for Picture, Director, Foreign-Language, Animated or Documentary. By the way, I co-sign on a lot of Nathaniel’s thoughts.), The Lord of the Rings is nowhere to be seen. Which doesn’t disappoint me (if anything it pleases me), but it’s a huge surprise nevertheless. Something that I could honestly have seen going either way is Oldboy (no. 30), The Dark Knight (no. 33), and A History of Violence (no. 55) being the only comic book movies featured on the list (and while we’re at it, Christopher Nolan tie-ing for most featured director – alongside Weerasethakul, the Coens, and Wes Anderson and above Malick, Kiarostami, Tarr, Linklater, and McQueen – it doesn’t bug me in the slightest but I can’t help feeling it is unearned. He is undoubtedly the most populist filmmaker on the list save for Spielberg, though Spielberg features possibly his least populist picture – A.I. Artificial Intelligence no. 83).

The absence of Gravity is flat-out jawdropping (the only Alfonso Cuaron film is Children of Men at 13 which, to be fair, is his best imo). Experiential cinema at its most potent and it’s completely abandoned. That and This Is Not a Film and Taxi (both also absent by Jafar Panahi) hit me as movies very much grounded in the attitude and feel of the century, maps of what can be done with film today. In addition, not a hint of Guy Maddin anywhere and that is very troubling to me.

There’s a much more reasonable number of Black and Female directors and Queer Cinema represented here (though they’re still in the extreme minority to say nothing of other non-white filmmakers or non-Western films). It’s overall a pretty varied list.

Spring Breakers (74) and Dogville (76) can fuck right off, though. And I’m very disappointed in seeing that of all the Scorsese pictures they could have picked, they went with The Wolf of Wall Street (78) in all its completely unfinished manner and not Hugo, which is completely gone. Save for Synecdoche, New York, those are the only ones I don’t like, though there is absolutely a lot I don’t care for to the point that I’d respond to the film’s addition with “… really?” Brooklyn (48), Memento (25), 25th Hour (26), and The Pianist (90) namely. But at least there’s no Whiplash.

Anyway, that’s enough bitching about other peoples’ opinions I will simply close out with this: a friend of mine – I won’t be that name-dropping guy who says who – was one of the critics who submit a list for this poll. Obviously, I’m not a big enough critic to be polled for this, but a lot of unpolled critics in the same circle as him and I began to make our own top ten ballot for the decade and I decided to craft my own as well. So here is mine enclosed so everybody can make fun of my tastes.

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1 – In the Mood for Love (2000/dir. Wong Kar-wai/Hong Kong) – Number 2 on the BBC list
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung make heartbreak look so hotness.

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2 – Moolaade (2004/dir. Ousmane Sembene/Senegal) – Number 58 on the BBC list
A movie portraying all the weaknesses of humanity and all of its strengths as well. I also think African cinema just needs to get more of its due, there’s a rich amount of African filmmakers that turn it up (Abderrahmane Sissako is another filmmaker I am so happy to see on the BBC list).

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3 – Inland Empire (2006/dir. David Lynch/USA) – Not on the BBC list
My resident Lynch choice instead of Mulholland Dr. – though I’m very happy to see it up there – because it feels like the Lynchiest Lynch film ever. Nightmares, women in peril, moviemaking broken down into an incoherent atmosphere, Laura Dern. It has all his ingredients in a 3-hour surrealist experiment.

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4 – The Eagleman Stag (2011/dir. Mickey Please/UK) – Not on the BBC list
Not a single short film on the BBC list either and I mean, that’s expected. Nevertheless the way this short portrays a perspective towards time passing that literally arrests me with fear… I can’t shake it off.

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5 – The Tree of Life (2011/dir. Terrence Malick/USA) – Number 7 on the BBC list
It’s gonna sound like the most pretentious thing to claim that this is the most experiential of all of Malick’s films. But as far as I’m concerned, it is.

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6 – Goodbye to Language (2014/dir. Jean-Luc Godard/France and Switzerland) – Number 49 on the BBC list
Speaking of pretentious. But fuck you, it’s more fun than any other 3D movie you can ever name.

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7 – Yi Yi (2000/dir. Edward Yang/Taiwan) – Number 8 on the BBC list
Them colors and shapes tho.

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8 – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015/dir. George Miller/Australia and USA) – Number 19 on the BBC list
No. No, I think I’m done talking about Mad Max: Fury Road for the rest of my life. If somebody tries to even dispute that it’s one of the greatest things to ever happen to film, I’ll simply shoot him like the dog he is.

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9 – Moulin Rouge! (2001/dir. Baz Luhrmann/Australia and USA) – Number 53 on the BBC list
What’s so funny about a whole lotta spectacle and a whole lotta music?

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10 – The Act of Killing/The Look of Silence (2012-14/dir. Joshua Oppenheimer/Denmark, Norway, and UK)  Killing is number 14 on the BBC list, Silence is not on it.
The first uses cinema as a loaded weapon against history, injustice, and honestly movies themselves. It’s definitely a much more adequate indictment towards violence and the influence of cinema than anything Haneke made. The second simply does its due in recognizing that there’s real-life victims to what was portrayed in Killing and that it’s not just a fucking game. It’s practically Killing‘s antithesis.

And there we are. I also almost put Grindhouse in my ten and THAT’s definitely why BBC ain’t hitting me up.

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Hit Me With Your Best Shot – It’s Like a Jungle Sometimes

I haven’t been keeping up with The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot for a mix of reasons – it’s been movies that I mostly haven’t seen except Throne of Blood and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which normally wouldn’t stop me but I’ve been ungodly swamped in work and school to keep me from having time to watch those movies, I’m still using a computer that has so little memory in it that if I told you the amount you’d wonder how it can even run its CPU and I still have no clue how to do screencaps on it. As well as my hopes to leave enough material to jump back on to making it a YouTube series again when I have an editing computer again.

But I saw Nathaniel R. picked the pilot episode of the new Stephen Adly Guigus/Baz Luhrmann/Nas (yes, that Nas) Netflix series The Get Down (the most expensive Netflix pilot to date) and there was no way I was going to miss it. I didn’t buy into the Stranger Things hype very much. It probably doesn’t help that I’m immune to 80s nostalgia. But I’m very much not immune to the mythologizing of the 70s. I’m also not immune to the mythologizing of hip hop. Nor the mythologizing of New York City (I’m sure I may have slipped that it is my favorite city in this country and maybe one of my favorite places in the world). Especially not the mythologizing of East Coast hip hop birthed in pre-Giuliani New York at the end of the 70s, mixed in with motherfucking disco to a point that I can enjoy it as atmosphere without being suffocated by it like I’m watching a Cannon production.

Most importantly, I’m far from immune to Baz Luhrmann’s excessive style of design and direction where in this case he attempts to apply a more grounded form of his Moulin Rouge! for an era and place that could still be remembered by people who weren’t even there and channels it brilliantly into mixing period piece and bombastic celebration of music and progress and dreams. At the same time Luhrmann provided a much more tonally faithful adaptation of Romeo and Juliet than even his 1996 film based on the Shakespeare work (the only Luhrmann film I don’t care for). I’m especially not immune to Stephen Adly Guirgus who is, in my opinion, one of the most talented stage writers of the contemporary era.

It was absolutely the most I ever found myself excited for a Netflix series yet and I decided the moment my friend showed me the trailer in New York earlier this summer that I was gonna watch its pilot the moment it played (unfortunately, I didn’t. I was in the middle of helping out a local film festival and didn’t have time until later that weekend).

Luhrmann always knew how to take pre-existing stories with not an ounce of originality to them (to the point that you could pinpoint what is ripped-off from where) and twist them into bold and bright new looks into the versatility of storytelling and how you could shake things up without changing anything. In The Get Down, what really makes me crazy is how he does it for places and people now. Grandmaster Flash is a larger-than-life figure of fucking legend and we’re meant to look upon him like a Japanese Shogun (especially Shaolin Fantastic is talking about different territories belonging to Flash, Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and so on). The streets are a maze from which to evade the gangs – all dangerous, all out for themselves. The disco halls are both a crime den haven and a magical source of light, music, love, and magic. Even then the halls don’t have both the aggressiveness and freedom of an old school block party.

And keep in mind, it doesn’t feel extra. We’re not looking at a very grandiose piece of work, though it’s very ambitious. But it’s nevertheless exhilarating, even despite it being the most low-key thing Luhrmann has done since Strictly Ballroom and I’d dare to call it even more low-key than that. It works as an argument against the idea that Luhrmann needs garish spectacle to get away with broad emotions (though his editing hasn’t slowed down much, but I like his editing style so… jog on.)

So when Nathaniel asks for a best shot, my response to him has to be “Motherfucker, how about Best Shots in plural?!”. Because I know what my Best Shot is (and knew it even when I was first watching it – playing this game has often made me pick my best shot in movies without even thinking) but my fucking god, it’s too brilliant to not share moments I was digging so much.

Like this obviously superimposed shot yet potent shot in the middle of Shaolin Fantastic’s (Shameik Moore) chase from the Savage Warlords gang as both implying the heat of the moment (Shao’s gonna have to jump across to another building) and portraying the growing bankruptcy of New York as a city.

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Or the absolute lack of subtlety the show has in portraying a do-or-die moment our diehard romantic poet of a protagonist Zeke (Justice Smith) is given, once again by using the decay of the city, though there’s some obnoxiously obvious lighting going on towards the left side of the frame.

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The way Luhrmann can’t help himself from having at least one “part the seas” romantic moment between Zeke and his foil Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola, who unfortunately makes little impression as anything other than a love interest in this pilot. The second episode, though… one word: breakout. Do not hesitate to see it). Complete with colors and dancing and punctuated by a kiss.

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Or the fact that no matter what, the villainous disco gangster still has to be the sexiest motherfucker on the spot. Hence why Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is – by an unfairly large margin even over Moore – my favorite performance on the show as Cadillac, he’s way too much fun every time we see him, even in his despicability and his complete anger every time Shao happens to be in the same room as him.

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Or how even domestic scenes can be absolutely obvious in their imagery and themes because Luhrmann knows subtlety is for people who want to be more than just moved and that’s not what his work is about.

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Or how when a character is important, he has to frame everything and have it all feel like the energy of the moment is coming from him because ladies and gentleman, that Grandmaster Motherfucking Flash (Mamoudou Athie) and if you don’t know him, stop listening to hip hop (the shot is a lot more fun in motion).

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But hell, I said I had a best shot from square one, didn’t I? And I do. And it all revolves around a character I already introduced you to.

Shaolin Fantastic (once again I’m gonna specify he’s played by Shameik Moore) is charismatic as shit to the point that we love him before we even see his face. He’s the first name we hear in the rap concert frame narrative, he’s the most physical character around as he runs and flips and jumps and races, he’s considered a saint of graffiti art (Jaden Smith’s performance in this show is the first time his juvenile profundity is actual given a worthy cushion, largely in the form of his hero worship for Shao) but he wants to be a great DJ instead, and Moore just wants to steal the scene from any moment he can. And he does for the most part, he has tremendous chemistry with every single character he interacts with whether amiably (Zeke, Flash, Fat Annie) or antagonistically (Cadillac, Mylene, Boo-Boo). I tried to watch Moore’s theatrical film debut in Dope but couldn’t finish it. Thankfully, The Get Down covered me with just how much Moore was capable of as an actor and if this does not make him a star, I am going to be very very disappointed.

As characters, Zeke and Shao make a great team of one character’s vulnerable humanity and romanticism and the other’s pure spectacle and energy as the rapper and DJ eager to be the next hip hop lords (Justice Smith is kind of the weakest of the ensemble but he still has hella electricity when he shares scenes with Moore), and yet the show is aware of which character is more attractive to us. Despite establishing Zeke as the protagonist, Shao is the motherfucker we keep coming to see. That’s why Shao gets his first speaking scene with a hero shot:

BEST SHOT

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Backlit and all (the whole scene is gorgeously backlit and had me wondering if it was a studio shot or the sun truly was on their side), so all eyes are on his frame. Even while Flash is speaking to Shao (and is in the shot himself), we don’t care to look at him. The shot gives all its focus on the man standing in the middle ready to bust it. You don’t give a shot like that at the earliest moment we meet him without knowing that it’ll be the audience’s favorite dude.

And it’s even more fun when he leaves.

OK. I’m done gushing. Go watch The Get Down, please just go do it. I love it as much as I loved Sense8 and Jessica Jones. Get to it.

P.S. (and sort of a Pilot SPOILER if you want to watch the pilot before this)
I didn’t think the pilot could possibly make me love it more than I already did and then its penultimate shot reveals MOTHERFUCKING DAVEED DIGGS FROM HAMILTON IS PLAYING ZEKE in the future.

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LAFAYETTE!

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X Gonna Give It to Ya

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I’m sure we can claim that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War were always high-concept comic book premises that also had a large amount of fan insistence riding upon their development for a good long while (hell, the road to a Batman/Superman film is a long and interesting one almost as much as the road between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins). But by my count there are only two theatrically-released comic book films that can actually be claimed to be created from the ground up by the very will of the fans who promised by their souls to give all their money to said movie if it existed, because they’re indisputably the reason that movie got to be made by shouting enough. Both films are the absolute definition of Fan Service, top-to-bottom created to please the dollars out of fans’ pockets.

The most recent one is the DC animated feature Batman: The Killing Joke and frankly I found that to be a complete dunce of a picture that competes for the title of worst movie I saw this year. In addition to fast-tracked animation work that feels choppy and flat, a huge schism in its pacing (momentum has always been a problem with the recent DC Animation output because they literally have no idea how a “literature” pace and a “film” pace differ), and the first time Kevin Conroy truly felt too tired to play Batman (Mark Hamill is brilliant, though), the liberties the film takes with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original source graphic novel ends up putting a new perspective on material I already found objectionable enough to the point that it’s one of the few Moore works I didn’t like and made it into a nightmare between fan-fiction and a misfire of character motivations. It was a wreck of a movie in every sense.

Thankfully, the other project hoisted up by the will of its fans, Deadpool, is actually quite a success. Not a huge success to me personally, mind you. I grew out of having a love for the sarcastic indestructible “merc with a mouth” before I even graduated high school and I was probably the only person who didn’t give a shit what happened to the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (not that I approved of it – it was a contemptible decision on the filmmakers’ part. I just didn’t care, nor did I pretend that’s the reason it was a bad movie. I called Wolverine bad for other reasons). But when it comes to what the fans demanded out of Deadpool, it absolutely delivered on those things. It was made for a certain type of audience, does everything it can to satisfy that audience, and considering I enjoyed watching it myself, I’d say that earnestness actually gives it a lot of attraction to other viewers as well who might approach the character clean. Fan Service in the most direct sense, nothing less or more.

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“Nothing more” meaning Deadpool is not the “genre-breaking” superhero dissection that some people are eager to call it (and that I still do not believe the genre ever received adequately). A lot of that claim is given over by two elements of its script – that Deadpool as a character is aware of his status as a film character (much like in the comic) and thus addresses the fourth wall many times AND that the movie itself is aware of the superhero tropes that it is walking through like a stepladder, from a backstory involving tragedy to it becoming an origin story of the character with us very easily catching the source of his vigilante moniker to having a character appeal to the heart-of-gold established from the very beginning that he has. That it’s irreverent about its status as a superhero movie does not change the fact that it’s absolutely refusing to subvert any of the superhero formula it subscribes to (even as it swears it did by killing villains, it’s just recognizing that it has obvious casualties as opposed to The Dark Knight having Batman blow up cars in a Chicago parking lot or Daredevil angrily choking a biker with a chain only as a method of tossing him headfirst into a wall and down two flights of stairs, and then turning around and claiming “we’re heroes because we don’t kill”. Deadpool is the most open comic book movie about its protagonist’s willingness to kill since Iron Man had its hero casually shoot down three terrorists with complete confidence that he saved several lives on the spot or Iron Man 3 had the same character look an adversary in the eyes as he blows a hole through his chest telling him to “walk away from that”.)

The origin story in question belongs to Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds, who spent practically the last half-decade trying to make this movie happen as a “passion project” to cover his complicity in Wolverine), a New York based urban mercenary, finding crude, vulgar but nevertheless endearingly sincere love in an escort named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). The two of them happen to be the same loose-wire sense of crazy for each other (thanks to Reynolds and Baccarin having jawdroppingly amazing chemistry both as romantic and comedic foils, they’re like the grungy version of screwballs; my personal favorite joke in the whole movie is a holiday-based sex montage) to the point that Wade finds himself proposing to her (sweetly with a Ring Pop of all things). Plans get set aside when the couple learn Wade is suffering from terminal cancer. Wade decides to get involved in a shady covert treatment program meant to force Wade via excruciating torture to develop regenerative abilities, but he’s also spitefully informed by his handler Ajax (Ed Skrein looking undeniably like Nicholas Hoult without his long hair from Game of Thrones) that he’s to become a weaponized slave to some undefined masters. It doesn’t matter either way because Wade escapes, but not before he is hideously scarred from the program and begins a personal vendetta hunting down Ajax under the name “Deadpool” and a full red bodysuit.

Still despite not being MORE than a superhero movie where its superhero gets to say “fuck” and “this is a movie” and essentially being fan service, Deadpool is nevertheless an enjoyable piece of breezy entertainment that gets by on simply being something “recognizably different”, if I may. The parts play the same role as every other superhero flick, but the energy is something scrappy and it’s clearly the product of people who wanted to have fun and see how much they could get out of a budget of less than 60 million dollars (relatively pocket change compared to modern superhero budgets). The results are an attempt to hide their limit in action setpieces by setting the first 3/4 of the money in a frame narrative of ADD flashbacks in the middle of a single highway battle (with the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick don’t really have a real rhythm behind their choice in where to re-enter the fight and when to flashback again, it’s all done through long hauls that make the shifts feel like rude awakenings. And it also happens to be an attempt to hide the movie’s inability to give us an immediate exciting action sequence. But, it is regardless an extremely admirable if not a daring concept) and – to my great joy – the most refreshingly small stakes in a superhero movie I’ve ever seen: Wade wants to go after Ajax because he made Wade ugly. That is THE ENTIRETY of Deadpool’s motivation until an extremely disappointing third act: he’s too scared to reunite with Vanessa because he’s hideous and he’s taking that out on Ajax.

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That almost every single cast member except Skrein – the reliable T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Brianna Hildebrand, Karan Soni (including Gina Carano as Ajax’s henchwoman gets at least one comedic moment) – add a complete levity to the scenes they’re in without stealing the show from Reynolds makes Deadpool get away with weightlessness in its plot and lets it satisfy as a lazy-time watch. Stefan Kapičić voices a motion-captured version of Colossus from the X-Men series (which Deadpool belongs to) with a chewy Russian accent and uses to wax rhetoric about heroics to Wade and act boy scout in every manner he possibly can. There’s no way the movie wants to take itself too seriously. It’s too irreverent about itself to the point that it makes more than a few cracks at what little star persona Reynolds has and the general state of the X-Men franchise for 20th Century Fox (ahhhh my close second joke of the film: Wade remarking off-handedly on the correlation of the Xavier Mansion’s size and the presence of X-Men in the movie).

And just as well that Reynolds uses the spotlight on him to let loose, this is the only role other than Buried where I find him really worth watching and that he gets to embody all that juvenile humor fans wanted to see in him without also having Baccarin presence give him an anchor to give Wade humanity. Childish humanity based in smutty dialogue and actions, but humanity nonetheless, all underneath a wonderful mix of CGI and costume design that gives Deadpool a fluid range of cartoony potential without making him feel separate from the world around him (though I find its early dig at Green Lantern for also having a CGI costume – albeit a shitty one – very hypocritical). I say this after being so against his casting as Deadpool before AND after he made Wade Wilson sound like Abed from Community with every line of dialogue he monotonously said in Wolverine. That’ll show me.

That the movie loses steam within its final moments of Deadpool and Ajax’s inevitable showdown was going to be expected (although first-time director Tim Miller shows a lot of promise with the efficiency in which he facilitated Deadpool‘s creation) and that its still essentially one giant movie swearing that butt sex and the word “fuck” can never stop being funny makes it a bit exhausting to someone like me, but not enough that I found myself rolling my eyes or that I didn’t find more than a few moments to laugh heartily at. That Deadpool would have been the anti-superhero movie was too much to expect and never gonna happen, that it ends up a movie that cared enough about itself to make it fun (even if I’d prefer a better, more ambitious movie) is already endearing enough to me, and most of all, that it made the jaw-droppingly huge not-even-funny amount of money it made (surpassing The Matrix Reloaded as the highest-grossing R-rated movie worldwide) shows that sometimes when you give the fans at least the minimum of what they want, you’ll find yourself very much rewarded. That I don’t happen to be a huge fan of the movie and am absolutely not a fan of the character doesn’t make this any less pleasing to me.

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Pulvis et Umbra Sumus

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This review is in part a preview of the 2016 Popcorn Frights Festival in Miami, FL to take place over 12-18 August at the O Cinema Wynwood. The subject of this review Under the Shadow will be playing on the 13 August at 7 pm EST. More information on the festival can be found at their website and Facebook. Tickets for the festival can be ordered here.

It’s a fucking miracle for Sundance. They must feel really good about getting to be the mayor of “I Told You, STinG” Town. Long reliable as a source for mostly indie films that I can’t stand or just don’t buy the hype for since I’ve been bothering to pay attention to movies, suddenly it has given the world three of the finest horror films of the decade for three years in a row: starting with 2014 (which was admittedly a rarity – a surprisingly strong year, I would dare to call Sundance’s strongest) bringing us Jennifer Kent’s Australian spook story about grief The Babadooklast year with Robert Eggers’ Puritan-era family-in-hell nightmare The Witch (although it only just received wide release this year), and now this year with our subject Babak Anvari’s Iranian-British wartime fear flick Under the Shadow.

There’s honestly a lot of similarites I can see in all three films – they’re all outstanding feature debuts of very promising writing and directing talents, they’re all domestic-based dramas that use the tension between a broken family to punish their characters (Babadook and Under the Shadow share it being a mother-child relationship while The Witch has a whole nuclear family to destroy, although there is especially savage hatred between the leading eldest daughter and the matriarch), they feature excitable child characters who are essentially the harbingers of doom before any supernatural element enters (although The Witch promises its horrors are the real deal from the get-go, but those insufferable twins do not make things easy), their leads are frankly outsiders from their local community (The Babadook and Under the Shadow have them close to pariahs, The Witch just starts with them being literally kicked out of a settlement), and we enter their stories shortly after they lost a loved one and are in mourning. And yet aesthetically and even thematically, the three are still strongly distinguishable in their own manner that makes them indispensable genre fare and if I don’t think Under the Shadow is exactly the best of the trio, it’s because of how tight its competition is.

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That outsider central to Under the Shadow, by the way, is Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and she’s the matriarch of a family in post-Revolution Tehran (dialogue in the film implies that it takes place in 1988) that frankly lives like a lot of privately secular households in post-Revolution Tehran – they have a VCR (and a Jane Fonda exercise tape Shideh works out to to really tie in how radical this family is in this atmosphere), they’re not Muslim, and Shideh drives and doesn’t see the need to wear a hijab within her apartment building. That would be enough to put her and her doctor husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) at a difference between at least their religious superintendents the Ebrahimis (Ray Haratian and Aram Ghasemy). The fact that we open the film on Shideh being told she is banned from returning academia due to her political activism during the Revolution, preventing her from being a doctor herself, just gives us reason to know how separated she is from the rest of the city without even learning any of those other facts about them.

Shideh’s hopes on a medical career are apparently informed by the recent loss of her mother, but I may be reading a bit too much into Rashidi’s great performance – one that has a bitter annoyance with everyone who approaches her while she’s still steamed over her life and that can only bite her tongue too long before she becomes too wound up – to say that she has a particular resentment for the idea of being resigned to the gender roles of housewife and stay-at-home mother to their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), with whom Iraj has a much healthier relationship than Shideh. Unfortunately for them, Iraj has been drafted into the Iran-Iraq war that came as a result of the Islamic Revolution (Anvari’s family having gone through the same situation in his youth) and Shideh and Dorsa must live for the time being without him as the glue that keeps the family together. Even more unfortunately, the young and sensitive Dorsa is beginning to talk about seeing the Qur’an-based Djinn (I have trouble explaining them to anybody who isn’t Muslim so please bear with me… they’re beings of smokeless fire that function similar to demons without the “fallen angel” aspect of them) and while Shideh dismisses them as nightmares, Dorsa is taking them very seriously after losing Kimia, the doll Iraj gave her. Most unfortunate of all, I should reiterate THEY’RE LIVING IN TEHRAN DURING THE IRAN-IRAQ WAR while Dorsa’s Djinn encounters are occurring.

That last element is how Under the Shadow truly keeps itself working. Like all good horror films, it’s a slow burn (in this case to the halfway point) before the possibility of any monster assailing Shideh and Dorsa becomes considered a plausible situation and yet there’s a foreboding sense of danger from the very first few frames of the movie. An ominous portrait of the Shah looming over Shideh in an office like its judging her, smoke from an explosion billowing in the distant background seen through a window, tape on their apartment walls, a frequent visit to the building’s basement for the tenants if things get really scary, but it’s worse when you especially know your history – that Tehran was one of the most frequent targets of Iraq’s Scud missiles and expect everything to go to shit pretty soon. Under the Shadow is unfortunately a pure genre picture, so its screenplay doesn’t have room for much for commentary on post-Revolution Iran (which is a shame, Iranian pictures about the Revolution are hens’ teeth – a couple of Makhmalbafs and The Circle are all I know; Persepolis might count coming from an Iranian author but it is technically more a French production.). But Anvari uses that time period for more than just backdrop, it uses every possible chance it can to shoehorn this environment as threatening to Shideh and Dorsa in every sense of the word, compounded by Shideh’s refusal to leave the apartment (despite most of their neighbors vacating AND Iraj’s insistence) probably informed by that same resentment at her current life.

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Hell, Under the Shadow doesn’t even have to wait for monsters to show to become heart-pounding. there’s an early scene where Shideh is fighting to save a man’s life with what medical training she has after he’s had a heart attack from a Scud missile landing but not exploding right in his room and Shideh’s efforts occur in the same room. In a single agonizingly long shot, we have Shideh trying to do what she can but the missile is literally sitting there with more lighting and focus on it so our eyes are on it anyway and just peripherally aware of Shideh’s attempts. We’re just there watching the missile waiting for it to explode, no cuts, no camera movement or change in blocking. It’s a remarkably minimalist attempt at constructing tension on Anvari’s part.

The biggest aid to making this atmosphere of living in an oppressive war zone work to Anvari’s benefit is how absolutely tired the whole thing feels, from the bland and deadened browns and blacks of the family’s apartment that take up the film (courtesy of cinematographer Kit Fraser and production designer Nasser Zoubi) to the casual manner that characters regard their unfair living circumstances (including the death of a relative) to most of all Manshadi’s performance. Manshadi can play scared like all children, but her main demeanor throughout the movie is a kind of neutral melancholy at living with the more severe and grumpier parent of the two and once Dorsa starts suffering from a fever halfway through the film, Manshadi becomes a lot slower and takes more time to be expressive of herself and it’s so effective it made an 83-minute film feel stretched out in all the right ways.

If this review sounded like it was a lot more focused on the set-up part of the film, than the actual frightening pay-off, it’s because Anvari is patient enough to really backlog much of the scares (with some movements and jumps effectively staged by Christopher Barwell to enter shots right before something bad happens plus a hell of hollowed-out sonic tone to the building) to the latter part of Under the Shadow and efficient enough to know when the film should simply bow out (again, 83-minutes is not a lot of time). Some people may find that lopsided in structure, but I think the journey to that finale is too compelling a watch to hold that against Anvari in the slightest, I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially when it lets us keep certain facts about the lore in our mind so that the ending shots are ambiguous in the most alarming manner.

I already had a feeling I was going to like this movie. I am simply a sucker for Iranian cinema (like, I’m literally going to see an Iranian film later today as I said in my instagram) and I’m a sucker for horror based in the psychological and immaterial. But those could still easily go wrong one way or the other and I call a spade a spade and a damn good horror film a damn good horror film. Under the Shadow is a really damn good horror film, one that I can’t wait to watch the rest of America slowly be exposed to, continuing to herald the surprising quality in modern horror films coming from the turn of the decade.

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The 2016 Popcorn Frights Film Festival Short Films

The second annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival – held at the O Cinema Wynwood in Miami, FL – has come a long way from last year’s incarnation as the launching point of South Florida’s resident genre film festival. Whereas last year’s launching of the festival started off with only four features (though one of which was the outstanding cannibal Western Bone Tomahawk – the debut feature of Miami native S. Craig Zahler), this year has 16 features from all over the world (including the breezy Francesca, as I reviewed) to be played over the festival’s run – once again taking place at the O Cinema Wynwood between 12-18 August 2016. Tickets and badges are still selling here, hurry and get ’em and join us! You’ll definitely catch me there.

In the meantime, a hell of a lot of features means a hell of a lot of shorts to accompany those features and your resident horror glut is here to gauge most of them before the festival’s release – courtesy of co-founders and co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman – and so behold my capsule reviews:

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Portal to Hell!!! (dir. Vivieno Caldinelli, Canada)
to be played in front of Fear, Inc. on 12 August 7pm

And right at the very start, Popcorn Frights sucks by reminding me how much I miss Roddy Piper, I’m gonna go drink myself to sleep. kicks things off with an outrageous 80’s Lovecraftian homage starring the late and great Roddy Piper sitting in our “Ashley Williams”-esque role, a disgruntled and abused superintendant who discovers two of his tenants opening a gate to the city R’lyeh (from Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu” where the cosmic monster himself is imprisoned). And in terms of being that sort of Stuart Gordon-esque barrage of gore and violence (beginning shockingly with the death of the last character you’d think such a comedy would have the balls to gruesomely murder), it accomplishes that without much more than that sort “fuck the consequences, save the world” physical comedy with some really gooey cartoony blood-letting and mania ejected from all the supporting actors, all of them working on the same level of loud nuisance to Piper’s grizzled performance so none of them really come across as grating in a manner that makes the film exhausting. If there’s one point I have against it, it’s no different than what I have against Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, where the central book (because of course a Lovecraftian Gate of Hell story will have a book) and the basement where the majority of the short takes place are both transparently too clean and overlit to not come across as obvious props and sets. But that’s the filmmaker in me talking, the viewer in me is literally shirking the rest of my duties in reviewing the rest of the shorts to rewatch this again.

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The Pond (dir. Jeroen Dumoulein, Belgium)
to be played in front of The Blackcoat’s Daughter on 12 August 9 pm

A sophisticated domestic tale whose funereal atmosphere delicately handled by director Dumoulein already gets us ready for a ghost story, before the ghost even becomes a thing until halfway through the film. That atmosphere being the product of some lovely cold blue day photography (intercut with the interior nights of an expected but still tense black and orange) and makeup and costume on Kirsten Pieres, playing an apparently comatose mother of our protagonist Kris (Xenia Borremans) and given a gaunt and bleached-out fatigued look thanks to those elements. It’s enough, alongside Sara De Bosschere’s ominous and menacing presence as Kris’ aunt Jeanne, taking care of her mother, to promise something’s very wrong before the film gets to its full throttle climax where we discover just what lives inside the lake and how it got there. A satisfying, if not revelatory, ghost tale on all fronts.

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Hada (dir. Tony Morales, Spain)
to be played in front of Under the Shadow on 13 August 7 pm

A dark Spanish tooth fairy tale – at least, I’d assume by the presence that the titular monster (Eva Isanta) is essentially the tooth fairy as young Daniel (Fernando Boza) begins the tale by proclaiming his toothache to his kindly grandmother (Silvia Casanova) and the movie almost immediately jumps into his fear of Hada appearing in the dark, making great use of the darkness and having Daniel’s flashlight give abrupt cuts that make Hada’s blinking appearances having more shocking punctuation to them until the end. At 8 minutes (6 1/2 if we don’t count credits), Hada doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to develop itself as a tale so much as just promise something is gonna pop out and spook us in this one-bedroom short, but as it functions well enough as a brief tease before a feature film and a showcase of Morales knowledge on how to build up suspense before the jump-scares to fit snugly before Under the Shadow on the schedule.

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The Birch (dir. Ben Franklin & Anthony Melton, UK)
to be played in front of I Am Not a Serial Killer on 13 August 9 pm

At 5 minutes, The Birch is yet another short film that gets as much set-up as it needs to at the forefront simply to introduce the presence of the ghastly wooden creature itself (created and designed by Cliff Wallace; played by Dee Sherwood Wallace) and bow out after taking a deserving victim. That said, it does get a lot of that done in that compact time – in the form of flashbacks and montage cuts (arranged by Franklin and Melton) so that we actually have more of an idea what’s coming than we did in Hadaeven if the fact that the monster is there to avenge our bullied protagonist Shaun (Aaron Word) domesticates it way too much to let it be terrifying on its own terms. It doesn’t stop it from being a neat little skit (too damn neat at some points, once again we have an unholy book centered and once again it looks like it wasn’t even once opened in its life until Shaun receives it) that I could easily see as being the pitch to a future live-action film with this very same monster.

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Pigskin (dir. Jake Hammond, USA)
to be played in front of Antibirth on 13 August 11 pm

I know this is almost entirely unfair of me and probably the result of being in the middle of watching Stranger Things, but after so many 80s throwback films and tv shows all of which portraying a time period I’m not at all nostalgic about, it’s too easy for me to say I am now in the throws of 80s throwback fatigue. And given that Pigskin is a product of Florida State University’s Film Program, the very same program that produced David Robert Mitchell so recently – director of It Follows – I especially can’t help unfairly seeing so many similarities between the two beyond the 80s throwback aesthetic, in the timid shy performance of our high school girl lead (Isadora Leiva), the John Carpenter homage synth score by Charles Harvey Spears, and even the very premise establishing itself based on our lead seeing a deformed monster following her that no one else can see. The fortunate fact is that even an anti-80s cynic like me can find a lot of merit in this short, like the fact that the score is absolutely catchy, the film is shot with a light fading of color to mete out whites and blues so that it actually looks like a nostalgic old photograph against its high school setting surrounded by football players and cheerleaders, and not least of all how co-writers Hammond and Nicola Newton use this to provide a commentary on female body image and the unhealthy expectations placed upon it, while using that as a platform for some close-up finger-scratching skin-tearing madness that made yours truly look away from the screen. I may be tired of the way it does these things, but it nevertheless does these things well and I can’t imagine any modern audience not getting to eat this up in the wave of 80s throwback popularity.

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FUCKKKYOUUU (dir. Eddie Alcazar, USA)
to be played in front of Evolution on 14 August 7 pm
(it is also available for free on Vimeo and given the strong nature of its content – NSFW doesn’t even fucking cut it – I would recommend taking a peek at it if you’re having doubts but are still curious, but if you can take it, I implore you to watch it on the big screen during Popcorn Frights)

Absolutely the most popular of the short film batch we have here, FUCKKKYOUUU came riding on a murderer’s row of laurels, not least of all being its status as an Official Selection of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. And even if it didn’t have these things behind it, the fact that hip hop producer and DJ Flying Lotus himself supplied the score and sound design for the film would be enough to make it stand out (full disclosure: I am a very rabid fan of Flying Lotus). That still didn’t prepare for a movie that tosses around time travel, body horror, and… monster coitus (?) for a wordless display of a being (Jesse Sullivan)’s struggle with identifying her gender, sexuality, and all the other things that make her a person. The film that carries all this density in its images and sound based presenation is impeccable as well, shot by cinematographer Danny Hiele in beautifully grisly black and white with enough contrast to the Panavision film used to catch the grain without obscuring the images and cut by director/writer Alcazar himself with a frenzy meant to disorientate us as much as the being itself (though Alcazar does also have a sense for serene rhythm in an embracing moment of white light smack dab in the middle of the short). That I’m meant to find more of this nauseating than transfixing is only brought back to me by the film’s aggressive closing title itself, but I can’t say it’s for everyone either. It’s certainly a provocative film, but one with something behind its provocation that I find unlimited merit in, so a cautious recommendation it is, but one for a film I’m deeply affected by.

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The Puppet Man (dir. Jacqueline Castel, USA)
to be played in front of The Mind’s Eye on 14 August 9 pm

This is more a glorified music video to John Carpenter’s first non-soundtrack music album Lost Themes (with even Carpenter himself making a big damn “hey kids it’s John Carpenter” cameo) than a homage to his style. Largely because Castel’s editing – which does something confusing with either its chronology or its sense of location – really misses how to have a real physical sense of the bar where the titular supernatural killer (Johnny Scuotto) takes its prey (it’s also extremely confusing as to the identity of the killer or its status… I feel this is a short that could have afforded to be just a few minutes longer to figure itself out). But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s FUCKING. GORGEOUS. with all of the visual designers – Art Director Eva Tusquets, Costume Jenni Hensler, Production Designer Zev Deans, and cinematographer Castel herself – in synchronized compliment to each other based on solid splashes of the primary colors (especially reds and blues) to give the whole thingy a dreamy quality that lets it get away with trivialities as little of it making much sense. Hell, look at that shot right there, perfectly backlit and foggy to give the Puppet Man such an out-of-this-world stature. When you look this good, who needs chronology?

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Blight (dir. Brian Deane, Ireland)
to be played in front of Devil’s Doll on 14 August 11 pm

I’m way too atheist to be remotely frightened by demon possession stories (I mean, never say never – those Conjuring films standout amongst recent entries in the genre as instant classics… but yeah…) and I’ve seen way too many demon horror films involving pregnant women to be remotely surprised by the final moments of this film. I’m not gonna lie and say I was very well impressed with Blight, especially when it devotes itself in the middle with shock content that doesn’t move me. What I can say is that it at least carries itself with an extremely enviable sophistication, at lot of which we are to thank George Blagden’s patient performance for. It’s irritating in its confidence without telegraphing anything really less than earnest in his character of Father Carey until the film tries to pull the rug out from under us. He is absolutely the best thing going on here and while it isn’t much, the movie around him isn’t exactly breaking down. It’s just there’s not much to remark upon except him.

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Disco Inferno (dir. Alice Waddington, Spain)
to be played in front of Francesca on 15 August 7 pm

I have a really good feeling that I would love Disco Inferno much more – and before I state this: I fucking loved Disco Inferno. I replayed it three times and it may be my favorite of all the shorts here – if it made two changes: one would be that all the spoken dialogue were overdubbed Spanish or Italian and the other being that its last scene simply didn’t exist as it dips its hand into a more obnoxious form of comedy than the more subtle humor the short was already indulging in. In the meantime, what we still have is absolute fun with classic silent horror films tropes – especially in our heroine (Ana Rujas) evoking the hell out of Irma Vep in her get-up and confident presence – and occult imagery in service to a film that feels like 1/2 caper and 1/2 Guy Maddin-esque ritual. And that’s without talking about how cliched yet nevertheless believable its setting and costumes are as we are introduced to the Satanic sacrifice to our character is to crash. And THAT’s without talking about when the movie turns everything it introduced to us on its head. It’s just a really fun piece of work and I’d love to see what Waddington does with a feature film sometime real soon.

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The Maiden (dir. Michael Chaves, USA)
to be played in front of Abattoir on 15 August 9 pm

This short film’s greatest strength is also its greatest Achilles Heel. The Beckett Mansion, which even plays itself in this film if we are to go by an annoyingly on-the-nose monologue by Lucy (Alia Raelynn) that goes on for no more than ten seconds but feels longer (though the movie seems aware of this by having the character she’s saying it to regard incredulously that I’m not sure it’s not a parody moment), is too damn famous as a landmark of Los Angeles to pass as a house to buy and sell on the market that happens to also be a huge fixer-upper. This is unfortunate because this short REALLY knows how to use its angles and cuts to bring out a hell of a lot of character in the place and make it obvious it’s the real star of the short. If you are willing to shake that off like I was for much of the film (it helps that most of it takes place INSIDE the mansion rather than outside), we still have a hell of an effective horror short that fights with Disco Inferno for the title of my favorite of the slate. One that completely uses ghost story cliches intelligently nevertheless as well as even giving into to indulging itself in a climax that totally homages Sam Raimi (right down to dynamic camera movements) and having Raelynn give a great everywoman performance bouncing between fatigue towards the supernatural around her and transparently fake but still desperate eager beaver Real Estate Agent attitude. Oh and Penny Orloff as The Maiden is frightening even when all she does it really stand there in scary old lady makeup (semi-relevant: I found out that she is 5’3″. The movie – especially in its penultimate shot – used its perspective to trick into thinking she was towering. Well done.)

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Gwilliam (dir. Brian Lonano, USA)
to be played in front of The Barn on 16 August 7 pm

Man, it’s not that Gwilliam doesn’t do what it wants to. I’m sure it’s usage of a cheap doll to portray its central creature is deliberate, right down to an extremely game William Tokarsky (of Too Many Cooks fame and I’m almost certain the same cult audience for that short is who this movie is aiming for – though I happen to be a fan of that short and look at me) having to move the doll around to make it look like it’s forcing itself on him (and that’s not close to the worst this short puts him through). I’m sure the completely gross-out humor down to sickening close-up shots as well as a really dangerous use of anatomy as warning is completely what the movie is absolutely proud to sink down to. I’m sure the completely rapey vibes of the whole thing is as deliberate as the eroticism of its central act (which to its credit… editor Kevin Lonano, the younger brother to Brian, does really well to set the tone of each moment in this short which is undoubtedly what makes its humor work insofar as for its target audience). I’m even sure it’s meant to provoke as much the annoyed attitude I have towards it as it is to get belly laughs from the people who enjoy this type of thing (I mean, using Gaspar Noe-esque credits like this short does pretty much is a dizzying “Fuck you” to anybody who isn’t on its wavelength.

But it ain’t my jam and I’m good, man. I’m fucking good, dawg.

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Mayday (dir. Sébastien Vaniček, France)
to be played in front of Daylight’s End on 17 August 7 pm

And yet I jump into yet another extremely unpleasant film to sit through, possibly moreso than Gwilliam as Mayday edges through from its bitter and smug cynicism to its complete lack of characters we can’t help but find repulsive (save for one woman whose only purpose in the film is to be fondled and die, not necessarily in that order. This is a very male-oriented picture, but then again its aware of that). One of those characters, whom we are meant to identify as the protagonist (though early on the movie makes the mistake of focusing briefly on another character) is Michel (Remi Paquot). Michel’s first act in the film is to masturbate in the lavatory of a plane and we are later to discover that he’s on that plane chaperoned by a US Federal Agent (Akil Wingate) on extradition from an unknown country (though given that Arabic and French are amongst the languages spoken on the plane, I’m assuming its a North African Maghrib country – Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco… oh fuck, they dragged my Algeria into this) for charges of rape. Very soon it is established that Michel and the rest of the inhabitants of this plane keep encountering a fatal dose of turbulence, though they keep reverting back a few minutes before the plane comes apart. Michel seems to be the only character aware of this happening and the film is gamely ambiguous about whether or not these repeated scenarios are his hallucination, an ability to foresee the future, him traveling back in time, or whatever. Either way, he is absolutely suffering in the middle of his punishment for being a rapist and I have the feeling the movie with its tone of paranoia and claustrophobia (both of which it does really well and it should really be no surprise coming from a French production that seems to takes it leaf off the old New French Extremity movement) that we’re meant to feel sorry for him being surrounded by such hard asses and assholes (the Agent himself is really eager to tear him one), but it’s just hard to enjoy a film like this that smiles at you while it feels superior for having a character give into his most vile inhibitions by the end of it (something spelled out by the very end credits song performed by Sexy).

Same as Gwilliam, I am fucking good, man.

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Manoman (dir. Simon Cartwright, UK)
to be played in front of Pet on 17 August 9 pm

A short that may actually give FUCKKKYOUUU a run for its money as most popular on the slate, Manoman has its own stack of laurels to display, the most impressive being its status as a 2015 BAFTA nominee for Best British Short Animation. It also gives The Maiden and Disco Inferno their own run for my favorite of the bunch and a lot of that is from how it’s able to do what Mayday wanted to do without being so… crude. Crude not to mean vulgar here because Manoman has plenty of vulgarity to spare, but in its ability to go about a sophisticated (if still on-the-nose) manner in communicating our protagonist Glen’s dilemma. See, he’s really not much of a man as far as he sees and the design of his puppetry adds to that by making him look like the most fucking pathetic thing in his shape of his head and the shrinking of his facial features, his eyes far away from each other, his nose sloping down… and then makes him far from special by giving every other person around him the same features. One of my favorite elements of this short – besides the detail of the dreary set design in its artifice – is its decision to let us see the rods controlling the puppets as thought their lives are literally out of their hands (and at one point Glen’s rods are completely in another characters’). He’s completely limp as a person until suddenly all his inhibitions come in the form of a small gremlin that looks like him if he gave his DNA to Danny De Vito and a version of him that… literally has balls. Ah yes, what big balls it has, especially in the dreamy final backlit shot involving a golden shower to a religious hum. Anyway, this gremlin lets Glen do all the things he’s ever wanted to do and together they set the world ablaze with their mania. It’s a flipping hilarious short of physical comedy that deals with the inner commentary and esteem issues a person puts himself through though it gives a heavy reminder of the consequences of such a toxic sense of masculinity. If I have a problem with it, it’s that I really wish we didn’t see the Gremlins’ rods as he’s obviously supposed to be the one out of control and I do think its ending (not the Golden Shower element, but the moment before) seems too moralistic as to feel safe in a manner Mayday dared to eschew. But so much of Manoman is working on a register I love, that it’s all over before I give my protests after laughing too hard.

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Iris (dir. Richard Karpala, USA)
to be played in front of Man Vs. on 18 August 7 pm

A BIG NOTE: The cut I witnessed had a still unfinished sound mix, it would only be fair to acknowledge that I had not seen the Final Cut by any means and to keep that in mind in my opinion towards the film (especially since it promised interesting ADR work with its title A.I. voiced with complete detachment by Michelle Strickland).

That said, the whole short itself didn’t strike me in its premise as much more than a low-grade Twilight Zone episode, taking the most technophobic possible target it can: a transparent Siri copy, especially in its amalgram name, to the point that it really didn’t need an opening Steve Jobs conference-esque moment announcing it to an audience that’s absolutely familiar with these sort of things in their smart phones now. Beyond that, it at least has some lovely naturally lit landscape photography of the Colorado Mountains going for it, as long as it’s not a close-up of Luke Sorge – the only physically present actor as a hitman who’s using his Iris phone to help him bury a body and arrange his payment – as Karpala and cinematographer Nikolai Galitzine prove unable to even adequately light Sorge’s face so that we can see some of his expressions and facial emotions. The poor guy is obstructed as all hell. That as well as how Iris quickly runs out of footage to use, using the same shot of the Iris phone sitting on a log as an insert. Iris can’t interest me with such a lacking ability to portray its human element or its craft against its cold Artificial Intelligence element, especially when it’s a story trying to tell us how much more sinister a computer can be than a murderer when it applies itself.

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Night Stalker (dir. Mike Anderson and Ryan Dickie, USA)
to be played in front of Beyond the Gates on 18 August 9 pm

Hey, The Puppet ManNight Stalker will see your gorgeous use of color and raise it not only by invoking shadow as an element (though it doesn’t have the same solid block of hues as The Puppet Man does) but also by indulging in stop-motion animation with gruesome elements that call back the work of the Quays and still match that heavy blue and red lighting while establishing gloomy modes rather than slasher dangers. All in service to an even more inscrutable narrative, though the gist I get is some sort of twisted romance between characters played by Maya Kazan (yeah, she’s from THAT Kazan clan) and Keenan Mitchell partly fueled by some sinisterly tainted Chinese food. Anyway, given the hallucinatory nature of this film, it only fits that so much of it seems wild and unable to fit together, but if I can’t connect with this film on a narrative or thematic level, I can still indulge in how impressive it is as eye candy and its quick and breezy energy towards itself. It’s an easily likable short, whether or not you can read much into it.

And there we have it, the majority of the short films to be played at the 2016 Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Thanks again to Igor and Marc and all the filmmakers who made these shorts and features and, once again, if any of you readers happen to be in Miami and any of these films sound like they tickle your fancy, you still have time to grab tickets for the festival’s run here and I hope to catch you all there soon at O Cinema Wynwood.

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Francesca Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Rome

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This review is in part a preview of the 2016 Popcorn Frights Festival in Miami, FL to take place over 12-18 August at the O Cinema Wynwood. The subject of this review Francesca will be playing on the 15 August at 7 pm EST. More information on the festival can be found at their website and Facebook. Tickets for the festival can be ordered here.

There are two opening gestures within the first ten minutes of Italian/Argentine horror production Francesca (it should say the most promising things to the movie that I had a lot of troubling squaring that it wasn’t a purely Italian production, in a manner that will be obvious by the first frame of the film and the end of this review) that bring attention to themselves in the most obvious manner and make clear what director Luciano Onetti (who pulled multiple duties as cinematographer, composer, editor and co-wrote the film with his brother Nicolás) intends to do both in style and storytelling. The immediate first gesture (after a dedication “A Mama” that takes a particularly ironic tone after the fact) is to actually have the frame of the film open itself up slowly to reveal the source of a windy soundscape of a dark sky until it reaches an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 – the preferred frame for anamorphic 35mm film in the 1970s.

Which seems like something absolutely disposable and hardly noted by a casual viewer of movies except as a slimmer wide frame than the US standard, until you realize that it is a ratio that is favored in many works of giallo pictures (an exclusively Italian genre Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries with a particular flavor for bloody knife deaths that had its great run between the mid-1960s to the late 70s), particularly by giants to the genre as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. It’s a subtle stylistic move that clearly announces the intentions of the movie to sit comfortably alongside the greats of those artists from the very first frame – Don’t Torture a DucklingDeep RedThe Bird with a Crystal PlumageThe New York RipperOpera (it is also an aspect ratio shared with Suspiria, arguably Argento’s most famous feature, and while I personally am quite peeved by the idea of categorizing it as a giallo – it has supernatural story elements you will never find in any of the “grounded” giallo films – it is nonetheless considered one by enough people to at least receive a nod).

If that is missed by anybody, the second gesture I allude to is a big enough deal that it literally stopped me in my tracks and made me decide to really strap myself in for the movie I was watching. After a chilling moment of sadistic child-on-infant violence with credits overlayed on top of it, the movie proper feels ready to begin with a completely giallo-esque presentation of the unknown killer in bright blood red attire including raincoat, gloves, and later in the film a wide-brimmed hat, prepares to murder its first victim with a ritualistic atmosphere provided by the cuts Onetti gives in rhythm to the worshipful dark recitation of Canto III from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, a piece which is continuously reference directly throughout the film (I also get tickled by the direct quotation of “Gate of Hell”, bringing to mind the OTHER great Italian horror subgenre). It’s a hypnotizing scene that draws you in with absolutely no trip in its deep pace – even the screaming of the gagged victim matches up to the magnificent rhythmic soundscape – before being absolutely thrown off that trance with a savage stab to the mouth, blood dribbling from the tape that bounds our victim so messily that we suddenly remember that we’re watching a horror movie. But that’s not what pulls me back.

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What really did was the fact that the credits – which, maybe I do not speak Italian, I was meant to believe were concluded – actually commence only after this woman has been murdered and the killer is now preparing her body for the daylight discovery of a witness walking her dog (Antonieta Bonarea) and the subsequent involvement of our investigating Detectives Bruno Moretti (Luis Emilio Rodriguez) and Benito Succo (Gustavo Dalessanro). Our detectives will come to discover that the disappearance of a young girl named Francesca from 15 years ago may have something to do with these murders. In any case, Francesca‘s concern with willing to completely pause its credits to dole out a very well-crafted scene that kickstarts all the plot tells me three things:

The first is a more overt announcement of the film’s giallo intentions, forgiving me for reading into the aspect ratio now that it’s willing to really put some blood and garish color (especially in the killer’s costume, absolutely the brightest color element in the whole film). The second is an intention to announce that this movie is not going to bother slowing things down and will absolutely run through its mystery with the briskest efficiency, regardless of the layers it may introduce to the plot. This is a promise the 80-minute feature makes very well good on, running so fast into moments that it’s willing to introduce the Detectives’ investigation of crime scenes, cut into a flashback of a witness’s memory, and then cut straight from that flashback to the scene chronologically AFTER the witness is being questioned even while his or her narration continues. Editing gestures like these simply want to move on to the next big kill moment and only leave the Detective’s untangling of the convoluted pattern of kills for the function of the genre and it shows a very delicate ability on Onetti’s part to make sure the audience is not in the slightest bored while telling them “if you’re lost, it doesn’t matter! Here comes the really good stuff, anyway” on to a moment where somebody gets a knife through the throat or an iron press to the face.

Which leads to the third and most telling thing about this move – Onetti is willing to stop the movie from properly starting because he’s really damn proud of his craft and wants you to see it. It is in itself an attitude of the film that is well-deserved in my opinion. What Onetti has done is built up a time capsule of a film from the ground up, using whatever budgetary and lo-fi limitations he has to simply add to the 70’s Italian aesthetic while being mindful of more modern visual language as to allow the genre more accessible to people who simply aren’t as familiar with the movement (though I can’t imagine anybody walking into this film without an idea of what it is) and invite their interest, anyway. This twist on lo-fi filmmaking is especially prevalent in the soft focus and lighting give that grimy old picture feel, accented by a subtle blue color tone (most obviously in interior sequences) that add to the bloated dead feel of the picture, before the presence of the killer’s red dress cuts into that soft tone and another throat. The editing is easily the most modern part of the film, though it favors using canted angles that give the film a 60s hallucinatory vibe, by matching up to the rhythm of the moment like that opening kill promised. Neither of them are the perfect work of a master with either dodgy cuts (a one-second cut at the very beginning calls way too much attention to a fake baby, even if its blink or you’ll miss it), somewhat alienating effects that are so outside the realm of the sort of sophistication Onetti mostly displays that I think it’d be an injustice to call them deliberate goofs (an establishing shot of a church tower warps and distorts like a cartoon manner that you’ll never find elsewhere), and a few completely out-of-focus shots that don’t work outside of the hallucinated moments of the killer’s presence. Still, that Onetti can single-handedly construct a genre picture that works in all the places where it matters AND keep a swift pace is impressive enough.

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And that’s without mentioning how the sound design is easily the most enjoyable thing about the movie to me. Either simply because Onetti wants to match up with the historical habit of Italian productions during that era overdubbing EVERYTHING (giallo or otherwise) or because Onetti knows the true value of a good horror soundscape or maybe both, the point is that Onetti announces before any visual alarm an insistence that something is wrong by heralding a trapped claustrophobic interior tone (sort a muffled form of the opening exterior noise) before really utilizing all the Creepy Sound Effects 101 to great effect: canned baby sounds from a doll (especially with the phrase “Mommy wants to play with you”), piano, all the sort of perfect things to get under your skin and get you ready for when the killer comes out. That these moments are usually preceded by mundane investigation scenes only allows our ears to really pipe up once we hear it coming and that Onetti’s score – while not exactly original – plays well-enough into the time period the film consciously sets itself in pulls double-duty on recalling the dark audial violence of Fulci and Argento and letting it pulsate through the spine-chilling moments prior to a stab.

The plot is of such limited concern to even the film itself that once it ties itself up, it gives the viewer no room to square its final twists and moves right on to the crimson-backgrounded credits (and slowly closes off that aspect ratio in the very same manner). To its credit, though, I think it ties itself up a lot cleaner than pretty much most giallos (certainly Twitch of the Death Nerve and StageFright, amongst my favorites of the genre) and Rodriguez and Dalessandro doing a better job than you’d expect establishing the complete fatigue in their detective characters coming from their stressful line of cases previous to this doozie. And just as well, because what we truly have here is simply a lovingly sincere attempt to not just function as “homage or love letter to the giallo” but to outright insist upon itself as a new entry into the canon.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t see myself having a problem with giving it that. Nothing about Francesca is cynical or throws itself as a cunning wink to the genre as a parody, which might not make it more interesting than a great straightforward genre film, but sometimes that’s all you need and the giallo movement has been in such a drought (I mean, Dario Argento HAS NEVER MADE A MOVIE SINCE OPERA AND ANYBODY WHO TELLS ME THERE ARE ARGENTO MOVIES AFTER THAT IS LYING). All its flaws are to my mind honest mistakes, made by a pair of brothers on their sophomore feature with limited resources or a stifling in creative decisions who worked on this with the whole of their hearts, and all its successes are enviously impressive that leave me with more than just a feeling that anybody who comes across this movie is liable to enjoy it as a fan of good enthusiastic horror work. It also leaves me insisting that anybody who has as much an eagerness to consume giallo works like yours truly actively seek this out and leave me to seek out the Onetti brothers’ first feature Deep Sleep. And that’s not even talking about my excitement for what’s to come in the future for them. New blood was exactly what this genre needed and we got it.

(P.S. stay after the credits for one more special moment – besides the fact that the frame closes itself in the same fashion as it opens.)

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We Came. We Saw. We Kicked It’s Ass.

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I’m older as hell now. I’m not the same kid who first saw Ghostbusters loving the hell out of it in the 1990s. I’m wiser – I don’t generally care for Dan Aykroyd’s writing and rest in peace to Harold Ramis, but he eventually fell off as well (but not before giving us Caddyshack and Groundhog Day so he was a very talented individual). Their 1984 Ghostbusters – which they wrote and starred in – lives and breathes in the atmosphere of 1980s Hollywood comedies in that it’s blatantly a movie riding on it being a high concept – rather than the Bill Murray star vehicle it now gets retroactively read as – of a bunch of guys, y’know… busting ghosts. Paranormal exterminators, that’s it. That’s a logline summary of the film to be sold. Plus it came from the 1980s, pound for pound the worst decade in American filmmaking to me. In my mind, Ghostbusters had every possibility of being a lesser film than it is.

Instead, what we got was lightning in a bottle – a movie that is completely aware of the scale of itself (because if you have a movie about guys busting ghosts, you’re gonna need some great effects) but dismissive of that to the point of just feeling like a hangout comedy. Which in itself, shouldn’t be a surprise coming from the men who were involved CaddyshackThe Blues Brothers, and Stripes – all shaggy comedies based in just putting characters in a location and interacting that had some kind of aimlessness to them – not just Aykroyd and Ramis, but star Murray and director Ivan Reitman. I can’t think of many movies that are able to take these two blatantly unmixable masters – the big damn sci-fi/horror spectacle and the dudes just being dudes – and even attempts to please them both (the closest I can think of is This Is the End, but man, the high-concept is such a fucking garbagefire that it only works by being a hangout stoner comedy). Ghostbusters accomplishes both elements with flying colors, plus Aykroyd and Ramis somehow discipline their episodic style of writing early in their careers (probably meant to allow improvisation of the Second City and Saturday Night Live alums that show up in their movies – something which is certainly present in Ghostbusters as well) to actually craft a plot that’s nothing dense, god forbid, but one where the conflicts and relationships develop and events have consequences and we can actually see how the movie builds itself up to a climax that is absolutely delicious in its ambition.

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That plot being the startup of said Ghostbusters service after three professors in New York are ejected from their university as they regard their studies as useless with no application or ability to bring in sponsors. What were those professors studying? Parapsychology. Yep, I can’t really blame the university there, especially when our introduction to the most casual man in that trio, Peter Venkman (Murray), is of him using a ESP tests to court a girl and viciously torment another a guy. Fucking A, come to think of it, practically everything about Venkman as a person – this scene, the antagonistic attitude he gives to albeit a pretty huge jerk, the annoying relentlessness in which he pursues a client named Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), the fact that he brought 300ccs of Thorazine to a date – is odious by all means, he should be an immediately dislikable person. But hell, Bill Murray in all his casual sarcasm and deadpan attitudes to even the most alarming of situations is such a fun and frankly cool bringdown from the severity of New York’s imminent destruction that we enjoy his presence. Plus if the movie were really intending for us to find Venkman to be such a complete creep, he probably shouldn’t be having such dynamite chemistry with Weaver as romantic foils, even when it involves Barrett showing Venkman the door. It’s essentially the Ferris Bueller effect – the character is a complete shit of a person, but the performance to bring that character to life has too much charisma to even consider hating him. And this meant to be a compliment – we want to love these characters and Ghostbusters lets us.

Murray is obviously the guy who’s taking over the show, but Ghostbusters can’t maintain its hangout feel without at least the illusion of a strong ensemble and the strength of the supporting cast is not at all an illusion. Calling Ramis as Dr. Egon Spengler and Aykroyd as Dr. Ray Stantz as supporting characters is dismissive, since they are just as much involved in the particulars of the plot and they both pull off characteristics that make them pleasant presences – Aykroyd with his boy-ish naivete and enthusiasm behind each step they make in discovering paranormal activity (my favorite bit of acting here by him is his despondence at mortgaging his home by Venkman’s influence, followed one cut later by his excitement to use that money to buy a fire station) and Ramis, who was always limited in his acting (my god, ragging on the recently deceased fucking sucks, I wish this review existed pre-2014), using that wooden lack of expression to stress the completely deadpan focused nature of the character and especially illustrate his divide from humanity even in spite of his undisputed intelligence – but Murray’s feat-on-the-ground attitude is why we hover to that character and know him to be the real star of the show. Weaver is undoubtedly the most normal of the bunch and still brings inner life to Dana that makes her far from boring – ie. making it obvious she is somewhat charmed by Venkman is completely inner commentary, her lines are basically “get out”. Rick Moranis and Annie Potts are lovable caricatures, even in their limited screentime.

Ernie Hudson as later recruit Winston Zeddmore is the odd man out of the main cast and unfortunately it’s not through any fault of his own – as great as it is to have an everyman in the group (it actually adds to the low-key working class platform of the Ghostbusters’ existence – “if there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say” he tells Potts’ character shortly before an exhausted Venkman and Stantz waltz in with cigarettes dangling from their mouths; his interactions are no different from watercooler or lunch break dialogue intermingling personal life with work), the character feels entirely like a fourth wheel to what’s actually going on. This is as a result of the apparent shrinking of the role since he received the role in lieu of the original choice, Eddie Murphy leaving for Beverly Hills CopIn all truth, the role just feels like it’s thankless and hanging there, something Hudson himself expressed dismay over. The poor guy was shafted here, but he still gamely exists in the film and makes himself known.

Anyway, the cast is not the only thing that lifts the movie to being such a classic standard of 1980s comedy that other 1980s comedies hardly came even close to, although they are singlehandedly the reason the movie is so compulsively rewatchable that I would dare to claim I am not the only person who has fresh as hell memories despite the last time I watched it being 2013. This is a movie about GHOSTS. We need GHOSTS. WE NEED THE SPOOKS, YO.

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And y’know, horror maybe. And Ghostbusters especially seems eager to at least promise the atmosphere of a horror film between Laszlo Kovacs’ darkened lighting for moments where the paranormal is up and Elmer Bernstein’s genre-based darkness in his score. The movie takes its concept seriously which is honestly something of a compliment to its audience that we rarely see in this day and age of post-modern sarcastic quips and tones in the face of death (fucking Joss Whedon). I know that’s weird to say just after I complimented Murray for his attitude, but that’s kind of the thing… Murray almost derails that for the movie, while Aykroyd and Ramis and company all cover for him and it’s enough to provide dignity to the threat but not enough to spook me. I don’t think anybody could really walk away from seeing Ghostbusters as very scary and even as a child I didn’t find myself very shaken by it.

But that doesn’t matter to me, what matters is do the ghosts have weight and by word they do. Not only because they are taken seriously, but because the effects used to bring them to life is outstanding. There’s some dodgy puppetwork, but mostly it’s a hell of a fantastic bunch of monstrous designs and movements. I can’t figure out which is my favorite ghost – the translucent and jiggly Slimer (joked as the ghost of John Belushi by the cast and crew, so y’know, look! They rag on the recently deceased too!) or the absolutely hilarious contradiction of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. I mean, I guess I’d lean to Stay-Puft as he is the root of my favorite scene in the whole movie: a monster B-movie homage of giants crushing buildings and threatening everyone (all with a big smile on its face that can’t help feeling genial due to the character’s nature as a marketing mascot) and an explosive climax that the movie totally earns.

Altogether, Ghostbusters is a movie that doesn’t float on charm, it’s the super gorilla glue that holds all of its great yet contradictory elements together to be the entertaining and rewarding watch it is. It’s easy to believe a whole generation has tied themselves irrevocably to this film. The movie is likable and admirable on every front and one of the finer studio comedies in the history of a genre that doesn’t really get much visual love from being made by studios. I’d recommend it if it weren’t obvious everybody who would bother reading this review has already seen it and knows how damn good it is.

And hell yeah. A whole review without once naming the elephant in the fucking room. Y’know the one. That remake. The really shitty one. Ghostbusters II

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Revolution Calling

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When I was a young child beginning to grow especially large in my cinephilia, I got to asking my dad what his favorite movie was. “The Battle of Algiers”. Oh cool, a movie from our country – Algeria – as my dad started going into what the movie was about and in terms of how it related to our history as a country finally emancipating from the French after a long war.

Or at least I like to think, because child me had that shit go in one ear and out the other.

Flash forward to maybe late 2000s, when I’m a teen and browsing the movie selections at video stores and I am first introduced to the Criterion Collection home video and figure it as a sort of public canon of films, since they are selective as to which films they bring to the ranks to begin with. Only a strictly prestigious distribution company would allow the likes of Armageddon and The Rock within their ranks. OK, so not as flawless a record, but I catch in the Criterion section of this video store The Battle of Algiers and recall my dad singing its high praises, even if I didn’t really recall what those praises were exactly. I guess it’s more than just my dad’s favorite movie, it’s a well-regarded piece of film canon.

I didn’t pick it up then.

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Before I move on, probably better to hit upon the history behind the story The Battle of Algiers tells: In the late 1700s, negotiations and diplomacy between France and Algeria was a huge misnomer for what went on between the two states: Charles X – the Bourbon King – and Hussein Dey – the Ottoman ruler of Algeria – fucking hated each other and kept slighting each other one after the other, hurting the possibility of compromise and negotiation. By 1830, France became exasperated enough that they took to invading the capital of Algiers under the command of Marshall Bugeaud and a method of devastating the entire native population of Algeria through “scorched earth” tactics of extreme inhumanities and continuous bloodshed until they muscled France muscled itself into completely occupying and dividing Algeria in 1848. While the violence toned down after that year, for a century, relations between France and Algeria had been hostile and based in stifling the Muslim population until Front de Liberation Nationale was fomed in 1954 to regain independence for Algeria by any means necessary.

FLN was not the first or only of these groups to be formed but it was the one that apparently hit hardest as it spearheaded guerilla warfare and reopened the chaos and violence against the French occupation until French President Charles de Gaulle finally relented with a vote for Algerian independence in 1962 (I find it nothing less than providence that the American Day of Independence and the Algerian Day of Independence – the two nationalities with which I proudly I identify – are in fact consecutive… July 4th and July 5th) and Algeria has been since slowly rebuilding itself as a nation to this day. These events have been a shadow over Algerian history since and its most formative years.

That takes care of the historical context. Fast forward to 2011 and my first face-to-face introduction with The Battle of Algiers as a film itself…

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In one of my college courses, we watch the very first few minutes of the film depicting a man in the aftermath of a particularly torturous interrogation by the French counter-insurgency in the presence of Col. Mathieu (played by Jean Martin, based on several French figures including Colonel Roger Trinquier and General Jacques Massu who oversaw the counter-insurgency in the real-life conflicts). Apparently the interrogation has been successful as they extracted from their subject the location of the hiding face of the rebellion himself, criminal turned FLN leader Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) and are on their way to take him down.

Two things hit me about the snippet of the film that we just watched: the hyper-realist style that director Gillo Pontecorvo, cinematographer Marcello Gatti, and editors Mario Morra and Mario Serandrei adapt to their content feels like a documentary or newreel presentation of completely unglorious elements of warfare you would not expect newsreels to have such access to. A man is completely beaten and humiliated and ashamed and it’s captured in grainy black-and-white cinematography with lighting more to accent the ugliness of the situation than to remind us that we’re watching a dramatization of these events essentially, the editing style of this scene is the only element that seems to adopt a more movie-style in its efforts to capture continuity of this – though Morra and Serandrei also are willing to let shots simply linger and overlook the officious yet destitute space this interrogation takes place in. It was unmistakably an aesthetic demanding that you recognize the real inhumanity of the scene without the artifice of it, while distancing yourself and making note of that distance in its documentary style, the sort of distance you get watching news footage of a war zone.

The second thing that hit me was that I recognized the tortured figure. Personally. He had been long passed since I last saw him as a child, but the man was my upstairs neighbor back in Algeria. Which made for a really uncomfortable watch in my classroom, seeing him act out being beaten. And when I finally got to watching The Battle of Algiers later that year, he was not the only face I’d be able to pick out from Bab el Oued in Algiers.

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That’s the thing I have to acknowledge about Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. These elements of both personal recognition with some of the faces and places that Pontecorvo shot the film in that lead to a resonance that jumps right over the line of personal bias with the film. This was MY home they shot The Battle of Algiers in, these people were there for my childhood, this is my nation’s history that they’re planting into the streets I lived in. That’s not something I can pretend doesn’t affect my high enthusiasm for the film.

The other is that these elements of hyper-realism: the camera acting as a journalist, the editing adding emotional impact to moments (my favorite cut – indeed the very first image that comes to mind is when we’re introduced to la Pointe as a character and he witnesses with a charged fever the guillotine execution of a man from his prison cell; the shot immediately after we see decapitation from his point of view doesn’t even wait for the transition to complete before slamming into the daggered eyes of la Pointe noting his potential fate), the usage of local Algerian actors and very few familiar faces (Martin is a better known theatre actor in France than a film actor; Saadi Yacef, the real life leader of the FLN now sitting in the Council of the Nation is another recognizable face) are all expected of an Italian filmmaker in the neorealist movement of 1960s and all are continuously present in the film, but to scenes of extreme brutality and violence on both sides.

We are now meant to reckon with the reality of bombings occurring in the Casbah – a scene that most essentially showcases that Pontecorvo, Morra, and Serandrei know exactly how to use film technique to draw out tension in a heartstopping manner that recalls the famous opening scene to Touch of Evil in my mind, ticking down how distance and time left for our subjects before the bombs to be planted will explode; later on touching on that humanitarian aspect of neorealism to have our three central bomber characters interact with the French citizens they target and use it as coming of a cruel punchline where suddenly the faces in the crowd are granted personalities seconds before they are to become casualties – and a difficult scene Algerians beating a man to death for drinking to illustrate the adoption of Sharia law on the streets. The immediacy of these images and moments as we watch recalls the dark violence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is also for my money the only movie that could actually use such realist framing of violence to an off-putting (and shallower) end.

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Wait a second, both of those last scenes were portraying violence perpetrated by the Algerian rebels in a reprehensible manner, shouldn’t we be rooting for them? Most critics would use these depictions to argue that The Battle of Algiers is a film neutral in attitude towards the conflict, but I don’t think that’s the case. I find the movie heavily skewed on the side of the Algerians. My answer to that is quite complicated: the movie spent much of its time before this climactic bombing portraying the French counter-insurgency as inhumane and callous to Algerian lives and much of the same camera techniques looking over the dead casualties of the bombing parallel earlier shots overlooking dead Algerians. And I think it is necessary to drawback away from identifying the French as faceless tyrants simply ready to be punched in the face by the FLN – which I think also is aided by Martin’s casting in the film, something which especially pays off in a scene where he intellectually matches with the press during a conference discussing how the conflict has progressed. The Algerian rebellion may have the more impassioned argument (Haggiag gives la Pointe a coolly restrained attitude for many tense moments punctuated by moments of vocalized anger in the thick of a fight – he’s a guy looking for a reason to hit something rather and having found one, decided not to question it), but the French are the more satisfied orators of the sophistication and patience of their techniques, brutal as they are (in the press conference scene, there is made reference to the mysterious circumstances of FLN leader Ben M’Hidi’s alleged suicide, which was always made dubious based on Islam’s prohibition of the act. Pontecorvo and company completely play this sketch scenario as an obvious cover-up, forseeing the reveal 34 years after this movie’s release that M’Hidi WAS in fact summarily executed). The ugly side of wars like this is that it’s always going to end up lives being lost, real full lives that we are faced with in the bombing scene.

But even that’s not what I think Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas have in mind. The truth is that there’s no point where we are made to QUESTION the FLN. We are simply shown that these are things that happened regardless, there’s no punitive moment for this crime as opposed to the French counter-insurgency given all the villainous angles – they fucking waterboard a man at one point, and The Battle of Algiers is still notably on its side and the point to be made behind it is that: sometimes, violence IS the answer. It’s not pretty, it leaves behind a large mess afterwards for the nation to clean itself, but this was the only way FLN could fight against the French Occupation and make progress enough to earn its independence. The movie is using this as a rallying cry that revolution is a messy, bloody affair and that very rarely will you move forward by standing still and peacefully.

It’s a strong fucking message, one that forces a question of morality and pragmatism and it’s not even something it’s completely convinced by with a nightbound scene where Ali discusses the strike with a leader and is told violence is not the complete means. I’m not sure I completely agree with it, I’m not even sure how I parse it when the landscape used to illustrate this is my home and the places I grew up. But it’s there: Pontecorvo and company want to push you to realize that “this is how far things go when the stakes are this heated”. Does that make it a piece of propaganda? Undeniably so, it even acknowledges this in the same night discussion by addressing that the FLN actions are meant to mobilize people and having Martin discuss the battle of ideals with figures in his office – both in Algeria and France – yet it’s a towering achievement in speaking to the audience the varied veritability of cinema to communicate the ideals of its filmmaker and amplify its emotions with each cut and shot.

In the end, the movie hits me as both a cinephile and an Algerian and just as a person. It resonates in the side of me that recognizes that its an invaluable document of a history that bleeds into my country and even my family. It resonates with the side of me that sees that any element of a film can be used to speak to the audience in different tones and attitudes. And it resonates with the side of me that thinks that sometimes it’s harder to fight – physically or intellectually or emotionally – over something you need, a dignity you are entitled to, an independence that was stolen, an identity, and that’s going to take its price on you, but it’s imperative that you fight. And keep fighting and don’t count the cost until after you’ve done.

It’s an ugly truth and a hard pill to swallow, but I wouldn’t feel half as free as I do in either nation of mine – America or Algeria – if the people who established them didn’t swallow that truth first and fought my battles for me.

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My 100 Favorite Movies – 24 Years of Canon

About four years ago, in this blog’s previous home, I made an earlier list of my 100 favorite movies I had seen ’til that point. It was immediately outdated and many of my selections on that previous incarnation are embarrassing enough for me to refuse to show you guys what was on that previous version of that list.

It’s no less embarrassing than the fact that I’m remaking and putting effort into something so arbitrary and disposable yet confident it can illustrate my feelings for the artform. The frank fact is that I could probably make a list of 250 favorite movies. Maybe 500 if so inclined. But I want to take the time to actually lay out why these 100 movies are special to me. I want you to know what these movies mean to me. It’s already painful to go beyond 100 – the percent centennial – but I do it simply because it’s not enough. I want this to go back upon Pauline Kael’s insistence that she used film criticism as her own memoirs, I want these films to map out how I think my life went so far. And so be it.

Still given a bit between how this is between representing my own personal opinion and essentially me being just “yo, go see this moviefilm”, I decided I’d like to place a few principles onto this list:

– No more than three films per filmmaker (it could apply to director or producer, depending on whose influence I find most present). It’s all too easy to turn this into a list of nothing more than Spielberg, Murnau, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Disney, Coen brothers, Kieslowski, Hitchcock, etc. (in fact, plenty of times they kept popping in over that like tribbles) and I can’t do that in good faith. I wanna seem versatile, even if it’s artificial.

– You may group films together as is appropriate based on series, as long as they do not override the “three films” rule. That last segment bitchslaps poor Double Life of Veronique out of the running, which never had a chance alongside a filmmaker that has a ten-episode series and an unforgettable trilogy. Though, I can’t in good faith also allow myself to sneak Decalogue when the episodes count as films themselves and it reaches 7 over, so down that goes too. In addition, enough franchises expand that I’m happily crippled from using this as a cheat. This also removes the Quay brothers’ Stille Nacht five-film series or Chuck Jones’ Hunting trilogy (even shorts shall be bound by this).

– ‘Cause y’know, the test of time matters, I must refrain from using movies from the last ten years 2007-2016, even if they’re movies I think people need to get off their ass and experience in a theater – Goodbye to LanguageThe Act of KillingGrindhouse – even if I adore them – RatatouilleCoraline, etc. I want to wait until ten years gives them a solid foundation of love in me. Also because I need to shut the fuck up about Mad Max: Fury Road already.

– This one is most important to me and the hardest to shake: I am not making a list of the “Best Movies I’ve Ever Seen”. I know opinion is subjective enough and the line is thin between what I love and what I know is good to make it hard to split hairs like that, but I have to keep in mind moreso my personal reaction to a movie above its spot in my idea of an objective canon. Knowing many of these movies to be flawed and knowing many that are virtually flawless in my eyes, I have no hesitance in believing this list to represent my tastes.

In any case, I’m done talking about the list and just on to showing you myself and let’s start with the bottom of the barrel of movies I love:

iamthor2100. Rock n’ Roll Nightmare (1987/prod. Jon Mikl Thor/Canada) – Literally, I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d have some trash in my favorites but Rock n’ Roll Nightmare features one of my favorite batshit twists I’ve ever seen in a movie, terribly cliche 80s metal numbers, and it’s all a vanity project to its star/writer/producer/composer the Metal Legend Thor, whose hair alone has enough personality to spice up the extremely incompetent filmmaking. And I won’t dare explain the context behind this picture, you need to reach it with the same “what am I watching?” shock as I did. There’s plenty Thor to go around.

the-little-shop-of-horrors-feed99. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960/dir. Roger Corman/USA) – It’s perhaps the first time I actually watched a movie by myself just out of curiosity – I was a child, man – and found myself in wonder at what a perversity a film could be, of genre, of artifice – a movie that tries to be a sci-fi horror with a romantic side and a screwball edge with the limits of a super low budget picture will do that – and still be fun with the right attitude behind it. Thus is the case with any and many a Roger Corman film. Which led to a life of looking for weird and sometimes bad pictures alongside all the beloved classics.

flash2bgordon2b398. Flash Gordon (1980/prod. Dino de Laurentiis/UK) – Brian Blessed has a great big fucking grin on his face in every damn shot – he looks like aholsniffsglue found himself in an opera dress rehearsal – and I don’t see a single reason why I can’t match that. Everybody here is just a grand old time making the trashiest pulpiest space opera they can put together and succeeding in making it feel like a comic book come to life. Also, I had to put a movie with Queen scoring it on here. It was between this and Highlander and Gordon won out.

barbarella-1968-_143800-fli_137796618697. Barbarella (1968/dir. Roger Vadim/France and Italy) – When in doubt, just use sex. Though I find it fascinating how artistically “European” Barbarella feels despite just a shallow reason to have a sexy woman in space. And we could do worse than have said woman played by Jane Fonda – both because she is jawdroppingly attractive in this movie, and I swear some of the costume work is to blame for that because m’God; and because she has a fantastic sense of humor for the whole absurdity of this flippant fantasy.

17496759-mmmain96. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958/prod. Charles H. Schneer/USA) – My first Harryhausen picture, which means my first encounter with his brilliant stop-motion work and while Cyclops is nothing against the likes of Medusa or the Skeleton Army, it’s still a meaning living fleshy entity that alone makes this adventure tale constantly stand-out in my mind as a childhood favorite. Just look at that muthafucka be like “Fuck these kids doing in my yard.” Harryhausen’s work had weight, felt like characters, had tactility to them based on how they were made and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is definitely the movie that brought that to my eyes.

house-on-haunted-hill20195920f95. House on Haunted Hill (1959/dir. William Castle/USA) – I only hope that one day a theater in my vicinity replays it pulling off the dumb skeleton trick so I can experience this movie exactly how I should have. In the meantime, it’s a-OK to simply enjoy the biting irony of Vincent Price’s performance, like he was always well-suited to bring to any camp matinee horror film. Price makes this party a real party and a constant Halloween watch, especially interacting with his wife in scenes that totally illustrate a toxic marriage.

ravenous194. Ravenous (1999/dir. Antonia Bird/Czech Republic and USA) – I’ve never had a better way to put it that this movie is the best episode of Tales from the Crypt that never was. And that’s absolutely true of it – the shocking gushes of blood to punctuate the moments of tension, at times simply to disgust viewers. The black humor especially brought out of a frenzied performance by Robert Carlyle. The limited setting that brings claustrophobia between predator and prey. Especially the war surroundings lending to a commentary on masculinity and bravery, from a female director no less. Ravenous is a barely seen gem that I have no trouble forcing onto even the squemish. Just make sure you weren’t a steak dinner like I was when I first saw it.

the-trouble-with-harry93. The Trouble with Harry (1958/dir. Alfred Hitchcock/USA)– Everything that makes a Hitchcock thriller work so damn well like clockwork is still working around the clock in this one, only instead of a gasp, it’s a laugh we let out and nobody’s any the wiser. Plus the air of Vermont that pervades from the screen – aided by real character performances from Edmund Gwenn and a never-more-attractive-because-she’s-totally-just-waxing-casual-over-death Shirley MacLaine – is strangely welcoming and comforting, so of course I’ll find this compulsively rewatchable.

yojimboex192. Yojimbo (1961/dir. Kurosawa Akira/Japan) – I can’t even front about this. I wake up in the morning sometimes asking myself how would the mysterious yet aloof hero Kuwabatake Sanjuro go about the perils of the day? That lens depth alone is fire, but the dude is swimply swag.

thinmanrifle191. The Thin Man (1934/dir. W.S. Van Dyke/USA) – When people ask me who my ideal woman is, I’m so lazy I say “female” and leave it at that, but I can’t help thinking it’s got to be someone whose Nora brings out the Nick in me – trading barbs and talking casual drinks and casework. Besides I already have the background for it and the dog to boot – though not a wire terrier, Bruno is better than that. Myrna Loy and William Powell gave me unrealistic expectations.

somewheregreen290. Little Shop of Horrors (1986/dir. Frank Oz/USA) – Well, I’ll be damned, a Frank Oz production where the outstanding puppet work and Ashman/Menken music is in the bottom rung of why I love this movie, but mostly it’s a movie that reveals its heart on its sleeve as a love letter to sci-fi B Movies while not actually compromising the lavish Broadway esque production value of the spectacle of it – Skid Row is a wonder of skeevish set design with bright moods – WHILE not letting that enslave itself from feeling like a movie. This heart on its sleeve is also why I find myself loving the characters – especially Seymour – so much that I watch the happy ending over the original ending, anyday. They earn that.

tumblr_l8yujigggh1qaseldo1_128089. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005/dir. Shane Black/USA) – Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer are at the best sarcastic mode to treat all the most problematic elements of Shane Black’s sort of writing and make it go down smoother than expected. I especially just love it when the film turns against RDJ blatantly for his more misogynistic elements and yet he still has the sympathies as the punchline of gags like losing his finger to a door and then to a dog. And it still all works as spicy neo-noir.

gun88. Gun Crazy (1950/dir. Joseph H. Lewis/USA) – All the mean-spirited nasty expressionist blackness of film noir within its construction to make it harsh as all hell, but with all the fleshy humanity and emotional heights of its lead couple John Dall and Peggy Cummins to make it a striking and unbeatable tale of love on the road and behind the barrel. A couple to root for despite their flaws as humans. Now THIS is true romance.

death87. Death Race 2000 (1975/prod. Roger Corman/USA) – I can’t be the only one who actually thinks this movie functions very well as satire (as well as the mindless entertainment it superficially attempts to be), can I? I mean, it’s cheap like all Corman movies. And trashy like all Corman movies. It’s about a continental race where you score points for vehicular manslaughter. But it’s also kind of smart.

strike86. Strike (1925/dir. Sergei Eisenstein/USSR) – Wanna know a secret? Anything Potemkin could do, Strike could do better. Not least of all in its propulsive editing or usage of the cut to instill the metaphor into the story of the riots. Plus it’s structured better towards a hell of a climax.

still-from-twitch-of-the-death-nerve85. Twitch of the Death Nerve (1972/dir. Mario Bava/Italy) – Ah yes, my kind of trashy bloody giallo cinema, especially one that tries to make sense of itself between being a tale of a whodunnit and just a little “ten little indians” proto-slasher but just having a chaotic and left-wing enough script that I couldn’t tell who was the central character until the end. And then the end pulled rug out from under me in the most ridiculously bullshit way.

ugetsu84. Ugetsu (1953/dir. Mizoguchi Kenji/Japan) – I mean, yeah, I guess it’s a “ghost story”, but the real horror film comes the humans around them – the historical society hasn’t destabilized but everybody has lost their principles and inequality runs through class and gender without anybody in a position of power caring. But then there’s also the ghosts and the ghosts themselves lead into a more stately discussion of loneliness and shame and lend themselves to an ending that is almost certainly in my top ten, a reserved acceptance of place but desire to still do more.

masculin-fecc81minin-dvd-review-criterion-pdvd_01283. Masculin Feminin (1966/dir. Jean-Luc Godard/France) – I am legitimately surprised that this isn’t the movie people think of when they think of Godard. Philosophical asides, young culture both put under a lens and re-shaped into something that’s not an entirely accurate portrayal, scenes in the cinema and talking about music, complicated romances, sudden interruptions of editing or violence. It’s nothing profound out of his canon, but it’s most representative of the sort of things he was interested in doing with the artform and I like using it as a marker every time I watch any Godard.

y-tu-mama-tambien82. Y tu Mama Tambien (2001/dir. Alfonso Cuaron/Mexico) – My kind of hyper-literate sex-driven road comedy. The three leads anchoring all the personality behind it also lending themselves to remarkably intelligent sociopolitical commentary, the dreamteam of Cuaron and Lubezki using the long take as a manner of relaxed cruising akin to the car they drive while catching gorgeous landscapes. And that three-way hug shot is of course unforgettable.

sansho81. Sansho the Bailiff (1954/dir. Mizoguchi Kenji/Japan) – A movie would have to maintain a visual beauty like this in order for its central theme of hope vs. savagery – it almost reminds me of a Japanese Dickens except for its extreme moments – and Mizoguchi is precisely the sort of humanist filmmaker to refrain from making the whole film feel like miserablism – though it sort of gets there – and carry it all the way to being a triumph of the human spirit.

tumblr_my57hczueh1r3owlzo1_128080. Yi Yi (2000/dir. Edward Yang/Taiwan) – You will see over this list that I have a predilection to picking movies that have an apparently indulgent predilection towards blocking an entire shot with a single color, but Yi Yi is something special that particularly hews to using color coding in the most obvious way to map out the feelings of our central characters and that’s especially important in a story as minimalistically humanist as one centered on a family not going through any particularly unorthodox miseries, but still miseries nonetheless

balta179. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966/dir. Robert Bresson/France) – Ah, this is a movie that I almost completely thank its remarkable sound mixing work to bringing me into the world of its poor donkey character and live through its suffering. It’s also why I find such a cacophonical atmosphere during the final scenes to suggest maybe the opposite of the popular opinion that Balthazar found peace eventually. Also, I have to thank Tim Brayton at Antagony and Ecstasy for giving his review of it the perfect name: “Christ, what an ass.”

the-piano_jane-_campion_1993_www-lylybye-com_478. The Piano (1993/dir. Jane Campion/New Zealand) – I love mute acting – my love for silent cinema is probably not unrelated. But usually mute characters lend themselves to less natural performances and more to physical humor than any psychological depth. Not so with what Holly Hunter is up to here and she is single-handedly what floors me about The Piano even though everything else about the film – especially the framing by Campion and Hunter’s supporting cast – is nothing less than masterly.

umbrellas-of-cherbourg77. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964/dir. Jacques Demy/France) – Man, I thought musicals were supposed to be happy, but Demy was clearly some kind of sadist. His first musical is beautiful and lovely to look at in every frame, but halfway through makes good to ruin us emotionally by having the two central lovers become less and less opposed to growing away from each other and then finally makes good on its threat. What an operatic tragedy of innocence faded and romance lost.

screenshot2012-06-29at5-40-08pm76. Park Row (1952/dir. Samuel Fuller/USA) – “God bless the fucking press” is basically what Fuller is beating into our chest with this picture and with the lowest budget a picture like this could have, he made a fiery tribute to a profession he loved and saw a lot of dignity in. Would that anybody else had the passion Fuller had about anything.

children_of_men_explosion75. Children of Men (2006/dir. Alfonso Cuaron/UK) – A movie that uses continuity and sound – and I’m not just talking about the two FAMOUS long take scenes, but Cuaron/Lubezki always had a love affair with those kinds of shots – to provide an atmosphere of paranoia and danger so that we the audience feel like it’s just as necessary to jump and dodge and run away from the bullets like Clive Owen does in this relentless chase through a world broken down.

b53l0cyqzv4os2pwrqdrcktprlp74. The Fall (2006/dir. Tarsem Singh/India and USA) – A story about people telling stories – two strangers in a collective manner – to cope with pain, to introduce each other, to teach each other lessons, but then it’s also a movie about HOW FUCKING BIG CAN WE MAKE A MOVIE and the result is pure eye candy that the pretty multi-framed narrative and emotional context of our little girl’s imagination just seem like a bonus to how good this movie looks.

6970568355_59705e5aa873. What’s Opera, Doc? (1957/dir. Chuck Jones/USA) – Ahh… just another bit of entertainment mixing in artforms I’m already in love with – animation… more specifically Looney Tunes… with opera. It gets classic status with me already for playing like that. But then there’s the fact that it’s probably THE first Looney Tune, y’all think of and that… that’s especially impressive. When I saw this as a child, I definitely did not think I was “watching history”.

oceanseleven-fountain72. Ocean’s Eleven (2001/dir. Steven Soderbergh/USA) – I can’t think of many cooler than this. In attitude, in sleekness, in pacing, in looks, the whole damn nine yards of this movie seems like Soderbergh told himself that if he was gonna make a bit of fizzy entertainment for the studios, it was gonna be some really “wish I was classy as these guys” type of stuff. Hell, George Clooney and Brad Pitt alone give the movie a hell of a gloss in moviestar power.

gwtw_3lg71. Gone with the Wind (1974/dir. Victor Fleming and George Cukor/USA) – Here’s a really unorthodox reason for me to love Gone with the Wind: I’m on Scarlett O’Hara’s side. Like 100 percent. I know she’s pretty cruel to everyone around her, but the world is leaving her in a damn impossible spot and she’s not going to take it lying down. Even if she’s stepping on others to get to it, I find something electric in Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of that “fuck this world” attitude and it fits right into a movie that’s based 100 percent in being A MOTION PICTURE EVENT like we never had before or since. It’s just part of the overall ambition. Also, it helps that like, y’know, she’s fucking over slave owners. So I’m completely fine with that.

maxresdefault170. Chinatown (1974/dir. Roman Polanski/USA)- No other movie depressingly pulls me into the reality of an investigation. From the procedure to the cruel truth of the selfishness of people, how depraved people can go when they can get away with anything, and a bluntly nihilistic ending – given extra bite by Polanski’s grief for his wife – that hits all too close to home feeling like you do more harm than good. It’s only more disturbing to think of Noah Cross as Polanski getting away with his crime after the fact.

dumbo69. Dumbo (1941/prod. Walt Disney/USA) – Y’all do not even understand. I don’t think there’s very many characters I personally find more sympathetic than the silent child Dumbo, eager to maintain an upbeat mood despite a world that demeans and humiliates him. That he accomplishes all his heart’s desire gives me more joy than you can imagine.

2977f740-7f02-0131-ef04-42aab172632468. Brokeback Mountain (2005/dir. Ang Lee/USA) – I think my love to Brokeback Mountain is completely unfair as it’s not even close to the first homosexual love story, but it’s muted about making it all about that sexual identity while still allowing it to form the foundation of our characters’ tragedy – and especially allowing it to front against the heavy masculine underscore of Western iconography. And what’s especially unfair to it more than anything, may be how it chose to be this defiant during maybe one of the most homophobic periods in American culture – though recent events suggest we haven’t come very far.

picture-467. Fargo (1996/dir. the Coen brothers/USA) – I don’t think the Coen brothers would nearly be as nihilistic as they are accused of being if they weren’t so painfully aware of how human their characters are in this blackest of tales – even the antagonist himself is just a hopeless wreck of a man full of uncomfortable pathos rather than a force of evil like Anton Chigurh. It’d be a lot more depressing of a film if Frances McDormand’s career-defining performance wasn’t such a likewise humane light of hope, right down to her pregnancy.

once-upon-a-time-in-the-west66. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968/dir. Sergio Leone/Italy) – Be real: there’s some really shockingly devilish goings-on in portraying all-American hero actor Henry Fonda as Leone’s single cruelest villain in his entire filmography, sadistic, grinning, savage like Jack Palance’s worst nightmare.

2061826260_c895317ef8_z65. Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922/dir. F.W. Murnau/Germany) – Y’all do not understand. We almost lost this movie. Not without legitimate reaction, but still. We nearly lost the best adaptation of Dracula ever put to celluloid from the mind of one of the true pioneers of the medium establishing one of the most freakish characters in horror that just looking at a picture gotta make you shiver – unless you were introduced to him via SpongeBob. Like yo, this movie is precious to me.

the-lady-eve-stanwyck-fonda-05564. The Lady Eve (1941/dir. Preston Sturges/USA) – Barbara Stanwyck is a hot mess I could watch in anything over and over as she plays men like fiddles without any need for shame – although sometimes her conscience makes her re-evaluate herself. And it honestly feels like she’s having her most fun in this film, acing poker and poker cheats, card tricks, snakes, and flipping through her identities like pages in a book.

77d2d447a4829f3413721e4b1b83cdf945d77b7b9beea674ed6a68e7cd53df1663. The Shining (1980/dir. Stanley Kubrick/UK and USA) – Little girls are the absolute creepiest. Jack Nicholson is creepy but little girls are so much creepier. Like, stay away from me forever, K? And Kubrick and Garrett Brown, that Steadicam work doesn’t help, it just makes things look so much more inhuman, so please fucking stop. Patience is not a virtue, it’s torture.

north-by-northwest-5262. North by Northwest (1959/dir. Alfred Hitchcock/USA) – Basically Cary Grant having a bad day. That’s enough to make it a movie I’ll always relish, no matter how familiar I am with the ways in which his days get worse and worse and worse through absolutely no fault of his own – but sheer luck that he survives as long as he does to save the day. I also always had a dream project to remake this with Kanye West playing himself in the Cary Grant role. Because fucking hilarious.

f-for-fake61. F for Fake (1973/dir. Orson Welles/France, Iran, and West Germany) – I simply don’t trust that and can’t trust that. Welles is too tricky to let me trust what he’s saying, especially when the subject is a slippery one based in lies. You call this a documentary? Where’s the veracity? How am I to buy it? It’s not even that Welles uses cinematic tricks under his disposal, he simply distracts us with his theatrical manner of recitation and it’s so enjoyable.

the-battle-of-algiers-1966-criterion-bluray-1080p-flac1-0-x264-mkv_snapshot_00-09-58_2011-09-12_19-59-1560. The Battle of Algiers (1966/dir. Gillo Pontecorvo/Algeria and Italy) – Sentimental value that is very obvious when you realize I’m Algerian. More than my national identity, I knew friends of my family who had appeared in the film – including, awkwardly, the man we see tortured at the beginning of the movie… who lived upstairs to me. Still, the real love is for its depiction of one of the most celebrated moments in Algerian history as nevertheless a brutal and tiringly endless depiction of all the damage and blood that had to be made to get to Algerian independence. And it’s not glorious about it in the slightest – nor do I believe the movie favors one side over the other – I have not seen a movie more harrowing in its documentary depiction of violence.

city-lights-259. City Lights (1931/dir. Charles Chaplin/USA)  – That final shot of Chaplin’s face wrecks me. In give or take a minute, all the complex emotions one would have to face in discovering both your love’s salvation and her distance from you is communicated by Chaplin’s earnest sincerity and uncertainty and with no immediate payoff to seeing the Tramp this way as we fade to black. Fuck you, Chaplin, you kicker of nuts.

chernabog-walt-disney-characters-20689309-1280-76858. Fantasia (1940/prod. Walt Disney/USA) – It’s a mix of two of my favorite things: animation and classical music. So just the ambition behind Disney’s eagerness to expand on a showcase of both mediums means that even despite Fantasia‘s occasional failings by accident, this was almost unfairly going to reach its spot as one of my favorite movies. I admire it too much, it’s the sort of experimentation I wish there was more of in mainstream animation.

not-a-place-youd-want-to-spend-the-night57. The Haunting (1963/dir. Robert Wise/UK) – It’s the noises. It’s the noises and how on edge they make me within minutes of the impossibly constructed Hill House, I’m with Nell feeling entirely helpless and crazy around all these sounds and watching the architecture from different angles. It’d almost feel avant-garde if it weren’t so dedicated to its genre.

stagecoach356. Stagecoach (1939/dir. John Ford/USA) – My first John Wayne film was the best one to start with, not only as his first movie, but my got damn, do you see the way the cameraman can’t wait to show us his face. That’s an impulsive zoom put on him as he cocks his rifle, like “shit’s going down now that Wayne’s in the party”. He was the green one in a cast full of legends and yet he’s the complete standout in every angle.

moolaade255. Moolaade (2004/dir. Ousmane Sembene/Senegal, France, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Morocco, and Tunisia) – So here’s a real paradox: This movie is one of the most… lively pictures I can remember seeing for the first time within the past decade. Its characters and setting seem so much more calm and engrossing in a day in the life manner than even movies specifically made that way – the bright colors of Mercenaire’s shop probably helps – and yet this is all in aid to the fact that this is an incredibly angry movie coming from a director who wants to condemn certain practices while recognizing the humanity behind people who make the mistake of following them or enforcing them. That I haven’t seen anymore films by Ousmane Sembene is a fact I kick myself in the ass for ALL THE TIME.

et254. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982/dir. Steven Spielberg/USA) – So if there’s any movie that more obviously points out Spielberg’s inexhaustible need to tell you exactly how to feel in every single beat of his movies – down right manipulative sentimentality – it’s definitely E.T. that serves as the perfect launchpad for that criticism. Which is when I respond “I DON’T GIVE A FUCK WHAT YOU THINK, BITCH”. It is exactly why Spielberg is one of my favorite filmmakers, his ability to be so obvious to us while still coming up with just slightly fresher ways to earn the emotions he pulls out of us. And it’s the one that feels closest to his heart – not even Close Encounters touches the sort of childhood nostalgia this emulates as well as evoking.

the_texas_chainsaw_massacre_03153. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974/dir. Tobe Hooper/USA) – The starkness brings out the true horror of this movie. This is entirely narrative in content, but the presentation is akin to a documentary – Not a dramatic reproduction, but instead a candid look at an atrocity that is a complete fiction, but treated like an atrocity that could happen where you are. In addition, holy shit if that Sawyer family doesn’t seem frightening largely because the actors themselves seem confused in every form. The night scenes are the worst when we rely largely on the breathing of Marilyn Burns’ performance of nightmares to get our footing on her distance from Leatherface.

image_b9660bcf52. My Neighbor Totoro (1988/dir. Miyazaki Hayao/Japan) – Miyazaki Hayao just has a way of touching our innocent side without feeling in any way condescending or insincere and no movie better shows that than one completely stripped of his mature themes and solely focused on feeling as cute as it can be. I mean, just look at Totoro himself, he’s just a great big ball of fur using a leaf as a rain shield. And everything about the movie just feels relaxed and amiable, especially its gorgeous flora focus. I can’t resist it.

in-the-mood-for-love51. In the Mood for Love (2000/dir. Wong Kar-wai/Hong Kong) – A completely insufferable showcase of romantic tension and chemistry between its two leads with nary an allowance for that romance to find catharsis, I really can’t find myself nearly forgiving towards Wong Kar-wai for his control of how little we get out of it. That plus the way Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play roles in pretending to confront their respective spouses at times STILL pulls the rug out from under me and I’ve seen this movie no less than five times by now. Overall, one of the most bittersweet realisms in the building of a relationship that can’t be consummated.

stop-making-sense50. Stop Making Sense (1984/dir. Jonathan Demme/USA) – This movie is all David Byrne. Yes, there’s more than just Talking Heads behind him – I know for a fact I am a Talking Heads fan because of this movie – but also the phenomenal members of Funkadelic, but Byrne himself gets my body moving just watching him on screen and just remembering his energy and spasms randomly in real-life makes me start grooving at times for no reason. When I was showing this to my unimpressed friends a few years ago, one of them said during Byrne’s stumbling breakdown in the opening “Psycho Killer” number “That’s that Salim swag” and I will never let that backhanded compliment go.

andrei-tarkovsky-1966-andrey-rublyov-d1-720p-bluray-x264-kg5b16-27-125d49. Andrei Rublev (1966/dir. Andrei Tarkovsky/USSR) – This is a movie that uses the initial concept of being a biopic for its central painter as a synecdoche for an observation of life in a much harder time in the nation and how that affects the time of the movie’s release. And Tarkovsky has oh so many things to say about life. And it’s really not a shock that these surprises are what we should be paying attention to, given how a movie about painter like this is almost entirely in black and white, saving for its breathtaking finale montage finally letting us see how a mind who sees the world like Rublev did visualizes into his work.

dkov72poa6udhvpalqqx48. House (1977/dir. Obayashi Nobuhiko/Japan) – From the mind of a child comes a wacky and maniacal yet still altogether unnerving horror film that bases its existence on the many camera tricks its commercial-based director could whip up. It’s like if Michel Gondry and Sam Raimi had a baby together and I’m so glad it finally came to America with its completely unorthodox semi-bedtime fairy tale approach to horror itself.

inlandempire247. Inland Empire (2006/dir. David Lynch/France, Poland, and USA) – If David Lynch never makes a film again – the Twin Peaks revival not counting – I won’t mind, because not only is this the culmination of his unnerving talent of building frightening nightmare imagery to put yourself in the role of the lead character, it also happens to be in my opinion the best possible answer to Lynch’s Eraserhead. Whereas Eraserhead was an asphyxiating display of male gender roles crashing down, Inland Empire is so for female gender roles – with a throw of the fragility of cinema as a truth as well.

byrne-millers-crossing46. Miller’s Crossing (1990/dir. The Coen brothers/USA) – Because it emulates all my favorite elements of my favorite Dashiell Hammett stories – Red Harvest and The Glass Key for y’all literary noir fiends – with a surprising amount more personality in it thanks to the Coen’s ability to make fast talk quick to catch and as empty a personality as Tom Reagan feel like an avenue for our own thoughts of this gangster world he lives and collects in. Plus it’s a Coen brothers movie, so it means even at their deepest – which I don’t think this movie is – they’re still fun.

45. Grave of the Fireflies (1988/dir. Takahata Isao/Japan) – A devastating tale of guilt and suffering that only the coldest folk could possibly refuse to respond to. It’s unforgettable in the most uncomfortable way and that it’s animated doesn’t lessen the pain behind its content. You will not walk away unaffected.

barry-lyndon-landscape44. Barry Lyndon (1975/dir. Stanley Kubrick/UK) – All the sophistication of a period piece – one of the most lovely shot films I’ve ever seen to prove how much of a photographer Kubrick was – without any of the prestige behind it to cover up how much of a bastard its protagonist happens to be. I find it to be the only film that seems to back up the accusation of Kubrick being a cold filmmaker and hell, it’s detached sense of humor about Lyndon as a person keeps me from minding that.

100143. The Third Man (1949/dir. Carol Reed/UK) – You want to tell me why a movie so morally nihilistic and lived in post-war miseries and suffering can feel so light and enjoyable as a thriller? I’d like to pretend it comes from Harry Lime’s smiling dismissive laissez-faire attitude, but he’s not even in most of the film. No, maybe it’s simply how well the movie lays the tracks for Joseph Cotten to play pulp detective, with a bounce given to his step by Anton Karras’ score. It should be a miserable walk through Vienna’s ghost, but instead it’s an exciting chase.

evil-dead-ii-mirror42. Evil Dead II (1987/dir. Sam Raimi/USA) – Bruce Campbell is a clown. An unsophisticated one, certainly no match for the truly physical abilities of a properly trained one, not even in the same zip code as Buster Keaton or Jackie Chan, but he’s nevertheless a clown here in Evil Dead II – mugging and taking abuse and getting smacked around gamely to carry the film as much as he must without it feeling tiring. On the contrary, his energy is what really makes Sam Raimi’s “YO, OMGZ WE ARE MAKING A REAL MOVIE” energy in the blood and monsters actually fit well into that gap between horror and comedy.

miami-connection-full-movie-youtube-10341. Miami Connection (1987/prod. Y.K. Kim/Can Orlando, FL count as it’s own country?) – We get the best of two awful awful worlds of cinema – 80s indie action cinema as per pseudo-Cannon and optimistic message movie – and the result is a damn lousy movie on an objective scale. But how can I possibly not love it the more and more I see it? Its sincerity is disarming, Y.K. Kim’s attitude is poorly expressed but nevertheless appealing, and its cheer is infectious to the point that I could credit it with getting me out of an embarrassing funk more times than once. But hell, maybe I’m just trying to intellectually grapple with loving a ninja rock and roll picture? If only it were made in Miami, then I could claim that the Heat are the not the only great things out of this city.

screenshot2012-08-08at6-48-56pm40. Sherlock Jr. (1924/dir. Buster Keaton/USA) – There are certainly movies that are much more radical about playing with the artform in my eyes, but none of those as accessible as a hilarious comedy with eye-popping stunts by our great Stone Face. So, I get the best of both worlds, a movie that makes me think about how movies make me feel and a movie that still functions as just a piece of entertainment in its own right.

pic124758439. Duck Soup (1933/dir. Leo McCarey/USA) – Two types of humans in the world:
> The ones that would be unable to breathe while watching the Marx brothers do their stuff, suffocating because the gags are packed all over each other. The three primary brothers know their way around any scene so that they get from A to B, but not without a squiggly line making up their path. The barbs sharp and recognizable, the caricatures cartoon-y and ungrounded, they were one of a kind.
> Not actual people. If you don’t laugh at Duck Soup, you ain’t real.

jeandielman-1600x900-c-default38. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975/dir. Chantal Akerman/Belgium) – No film to me is more rewarding to my patience than this lengthy yet structured show of our titular character’s slow break away from her housewife/motherly deeds. It is the most natural manner of giving even the smallest gestures shock – a huge show of the wavelength editor, director, and actor must have put themselves in – and the result is of course some feminist readings, but I don’t even think that has to be applied to recognize Jeanne Dielman as a filmmaking marvel of control few filmmakers have wielded this potently.

Pather Panchali (1955 India) Directed by Satyajit Ray Shown: Subir Bannerjee37. The Apu Trilogy (1955-59/dir. Satyajit Ray/India) – I’m not sure I’m down with pretending that Satyajit Ray’s bildungsroman trilogy represents Indian cinema in its totality, despite bringing it on the map. I’ve seen too little of the culture and it feels more indebted to Italian neorealism than anything. It is nevertheless a brilliant portrait of how a gifted artist can develop himself slowly from a being of curiosity to somebody fully aware of how the world runs and completely engaged with his responsibilities and his craft. I’m not just talking about Apu, I’m talking about Ray, keep in mind.

theconformistbdcap2_original36. The Conformist (1970/dir. Bernardo Bertolucci/Italy, France, and West Germany) – If there is a single movie I really want to see Tony Zhou analyze – even when I disagree with his reading of some formalist techniques, Every Frame a Painting is an intellectual joy accessible to anyone at all – it’s this. Because, by God, I don’t think I can name another movie that dedicates every shot to establishing the empty lack of identity of our lead and commentating on it both on its own and in the context of its Fascist settings. And all this while being gorgeous designs too that feel like fractured beauty. But that it all has something to say is what makes this movie irreplacable to me.

imgres35. Duck Amuck (1953/dir. Satyajit Ray/USA) – The most creative and avant-garde of any Looney Tunes cartoon ever made – it dissects the identity of a character and plays around with his recognition to the audience in an experimental and self-indulgent manner, but damned if the laughs never stop coming thanks to Daffy’s exasperated attitude to his abuse.

4700941_l234. The General (1926/dir. Buster Keaton/USA) – Buster Keaton has no fucking chill. Like zero. He goes a hundred on his suicide attempts, you could run a train on him, and it still wouldn’t kill him. Chaplin is good and fine as a performer and storyteller, but Keaton is just obsessed and dedicated to putting himself in harm’s way for the gag and thank Keaton the gag is so worth it.

 

barton20fink20fire33. Barton Fink (1991/dir. The Coen brothers/USA) – Ahhhhh and here’s the really deep Coens I was thinking of. Written as a way to get over writer’s block during Miller’s Crossing, we ended up blessed with something really cerebral about writing and existing and how they coincide with each other, while dedicating everything it can to being a hard-to-categorize picture and eventually a nightmarish Inferno. I still don’t think I figured everything about this movie out, but I have a hell of a time sifting through it.

The notorious Last Supper sequence in Luis Buñuel's VIRIDIANA.  33. Viridiana (1961/dir. Luis Bunuel/Spain) – Man if there’s a filmmaker I would have loved to hang out with, it would be Luis Bunuel. Between his completely wonky and twisted sense of humor for all things sacred and his ballsy enough attitude to go “Ay fuck the Catholic Church and the Franco regime” right when he was finally let back in the nation to work, he’s my sort of guy. I mean, the movie is twisted enough to put off anybody who isn’t on the same wavelength – even though it’s also really funny – but the directness is impossible to miss. And I just prefer this classy and subtle sort of “fuck you” rather than Korine and von Trier.

0132. The Triplets of Belleville (2003/dir. Sylvain Chomet/France) – How does Chomet come up with such a novel story zooming around between gangsters and doo-wop girls and bicycling, plenty of which doesn’t really intersect on a literal level, I have no clue. But it, alongside the overexaggerated shapes of characters like the rectangular gunmen and the muscular cyclists, pulls it off into one of the zaniest and surprisingly human animated films I’ve enjoyed. AND THEY ALSO HAVE A DOG NAMED BRUNO.

singin-in-the-rain-di31. Singin’ in the Rain (1952/dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly/USA) – Three words: “No. No. No.” Three more words: “Yes. Yes. Yes.” Unsynchronized, a hilarious moment in one of the happiest Hollywood films I’ve ever seen to combat Jean Hagen’s whole performance. The rest of it is no less memorable, just on the smile on Gene’s face as he welcomes the rain in a gorgeous musical number. Oh and three more words: “Make ‘Em Laugh”.

three-colours-blue30. The Trois Couleurs trilogy (1993-94/dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski/France, Poland, and Switzerland) – How on earth do I dare to summarize one of the towering monoliths ever commit to film? Because there are so many levels to dissect Trois Couleurs as a singular beast – its geopolitical attitudes towards French ideals, its cutting insight on humanity, its challenge of identity – as well as in each individual film, as genre experiments, as character studies, as simply blocks of color. You’d think Kieslowski knew his day was about to come, given how much these movies say. And that density is far from the only thing that brings me back to these eminently watchable films.

vertigo-novak_against_green_light29. Vertigo (1958/dir. Alfred Hitchcock/USA) – Creepers Gonna Creep: The Movie and it earns itself that claim by me by being uncomfortably dizzying in its usage of color to attract and then repulse, slowly developing its protagonist’s sickening obsessions with Kim Novak, and how its just eager to spiral around as a story and as a visual landscape for Scottie Ferguson’s mental downfall – his weaknesses, his inability to save a life, his easily manipulated state, his sexual leering, it’s all drowning him and it’s unpleasant yet the most visceral hour of Hitchcock’s.

theredshoes228. The Red Shoes (1948/dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger/USA) – The central ballet in The Red Shoes is an unrivaled triumph of mixing in the artifice of both theater and film into a brand-new expressionist artform – one that wonderously paints bold shapes and colors against blackened shadow and blinding lights to both tell the original fable in a short enough manner AND to tell us about the psychological stakes of our lead Vicky’s struggle between her love and her passion. Powell and Pressburger pulled out all the stops for that ballet in the middle of the film, and the rest of the film never catches those heights, though it’s still lovely.

the-beyond-0227. The Beyond (1981/dir. Lucio Fulci/Italy) – This is the prettiest that gory, gushy, horrifying, nihilistic, cruel horror – as would be of the genre of “Gates of Hell” could ever hope to be. Leave it to the Italians to get crafty about the way people suffer with their eyes shoved into nails and quicklime searing their skin and spiders eating their flesh. Horrifying stuff, but eye catching because that’s how they do.

03a_rochefort26. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967/dir. Jacques Demy/France) – Because of course I’m gonna dig a movie so cheerful and bright that the discovery of a character being a serial killer late into it is happily tossed aside because it doesn’t mesh with this movie’s ode to dreams and chasing down what every single person looks for to complete his or her life. Also Gene Kelly in a French musical is something I’m so happy we have, even if everything about him is dubbed.

05-some-like-it-hot-screen25. Some Like It Hot (1959/dir. Billy Wilder/USA) – I’ve added enough “objectionable” content in this list that I get to be SJW for a bit: I owe my introduction to the fluidity of the concept of gender not to tumblr. – I owe tumblr. NOTHING – but to Jack Lemmon horndogging over sharing a train car with a bunch of ladies forgetting he’s supposed to be a woman… and then forgetting his male identity entirely as he enjoys his newfound engagement status. There was no better way for me to at least open my mind to the concept. Also, got damn, that dress Marilyn wears when she’s with Tony-Curtis-pretending-to-be-Cary-Grant ought to be against the law, it’s too murderous.

cary-in-his-girl-friday-cary-grant-4267374-1024-76824. His Girl Friday (1940/dir. Howard Hawks/USA) – CaryGrantLeftBehindByTheZippingDialogueOfCharlesLedererShootingOutTheLipsOfAnIrreplaceableRosalindRussellGotDamnHawksKnewHowToGetIntoTheThickOfASceneAndGetOutBeforeTheAudienceEvenRealizesWhatKindOfTroubleTheCharactersAreIn.

briefencounter_2543045b23. Brief Encounter (1945/dir. David Lean/UK) – David Lean is not all epics and grandiose photography, he’s British psychology put under its finest microscope and Brief Encounter edges out amongst all his chamber dramas – indeed all his works – because I honestly feel the self-loathing of the characters for loving and refusing to allow themselves that. Every other tragic romance – from In the Mood for Love to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to Brokeback Mountain to Carol – is simply taking its leaf off of Lean, Noel Coward, Celia Johnson, and Trevor Howard’s playbook.

suspiria_bannion22. Suspiria (1977/dir. Dario Argento/Italy) – Listen, nothing makes a lick of sense with this movie. Nada, zilch, even applying the principle that it’s from the point of view of children or that it’s a witch’s film will not erase that. Still, do I really want to know what’s going on with a horror movie or do I want to be put in a constant state of uncertainty? Most especially doesn’t Argento’s indulgent usage of color and the instantly memorable score by Goblin promise that we’ll be gleefully distracted enough to not care about the witch creeping up on us.

moulin-rouge-lovers221. Moulin Rouge(2001/dir. Baz Luhrmann/Australia and USA) – Just the flurry and bombastic amount of editing put into the opening scene as it whiplashes you quickly into watching Christian enter his unexpected love affair with Satine, it’s dizzying in a way that’ll you’ll either be with the ride or get off early. I am so with this overexaggerated display of romance and music, though. I find it all ravishing in every way.

vampyr-angel20. Vampyr (1932/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer/Germany and France) – A chilled layer of nightmare flooding every image, the dreaminess adding to the supernatural mood of the whole thing. It is way too damn short for me to be happy with how quickly Allen Grey wakes up from it, but too unnerving to want to go back too soon, despite its shadowplay being childish and jovial.

2001__a_space_odyssey_by_markascott-d6igj5619. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968/dir. Stanley Kubrick/USA and UK) – If there’s a movie that taught me I was more a formalist and into movies for aesthetical quality than theme and storytelling, I have a feeling its this movie. Which is a fucking stupid movie to pick – 2001 is actually a pretty dense picture when you begin to unpack its content, making it like saying Great Expectations made you realize you love literature because of the words rather than what a book was saying. But I’m being honest when I say this about 2001 – I was probably 15 years old watching it for the first time in the middle of the night and not in the mood to think about what 2001 is “about”. I just admired the stateliness of it, how relaxed and patient it was – to the point of casual boredom, and most of all, I love the tactility of the effects by making them practical models. It felt like a world I lived-in almost immediately, simply because the artifice of it seemed so familiar.

citizenkane118. Citizen Kane (1941/dir. Orson Welles/USA) – What am I going to say about Citizen Kane that hasn’t already been said about it? Its masterful usage of depth of field, the mythic presentation of an character who feels like an American icon within 2 hours, the usage of fragmented structure to resemble something like a wholly unreliable bunch of perspectives on the memory of a man. I dunno, it’s just clear when you watch Kane that Welles already had film as storytelling in his hand and that this was the pinnacle of the artform in its release.

76b9593e0eaf8826950841343583a276209253fdb5d0d9749c9024797962674917. Jaws (1975/dir. Steven Spielberg/USA) – I have probably revisited this movie enough times to feel like a resident of Amity Island, a mainstay of recognizable celluloid communities that could give a good ol’ Twin Peaks a run for its money. Even the shark gets amiably by me, which is not bad for a movie that scared child me so much he went off to do his homework instead of watching the rest with his family. But maybe that’s because of how relentlessly thrilling its climactic showdown gets, no matter how many times I see it.

homme-a-la-camera-3-agr16. Man with a Movie Camera (1929/dir. Dziga Vertov/USSR) – I mean somebody was going to have to play around with the potentials of the medium without feeling obligated to serve any narrative – although one could claim that you could read your own personal narrative into anything; isn’t that essentially what I’m doing with this list? – and Vertov’s vision is absolutely limitless and a genuine marvel to enjoy.

playtime-restaurant15. Play Time (1967/dir. Jacques Tati/France) – Title is totally accurate. It’s sheer play for Jacques Tati as he constructs a world that finds itself easily predisposed to becoming one great giant physical gag with a brand new to collapse and break down everything – especially in the party climax – and it’s sheer play for the audience to be allowed to live in this sterile world at a time when it’s going right to the dogs.

raiders314. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981/dir. Steven Spielberg/USA) – Nothing makes a superhumanly efficient hero like Indiana Jones feel more like a relatable everyman in the middle of a grand adventure than how he takes a punch. Because he’s grounded, this larger-than-life adventure seems a little bit more accessible without undermining the spectacle of this world-sprawling adventure.

seven_samurai_criterion_213. Seven Samurai (1954/dir. Kurosawa Akira/Japan) – I wish I had something to say about HOW it was made like I feel I do about many of these movies – like something profound about the cinematography or the acting, which are of course impressive – but sometimes it just pays to say a movie was so exciting and thrilling that it made 207 minutes simply fly away to nowhere. I can tell you that comes from a spotless cast, an exciting mode of filmmaking, but I don’t want to be here all day picking apart how perfect Seven Samurai is.

livingdeadbd6_original12. Night of the Living Dead/Dawn of the Dead (1968-78/dir. George Romero/USA) – The first is one of my most transformative periods in watching a film and that’s never ever going to change. It is a mainstay in my personal canon like nobody’s business as a movie that changed how I see horror films, cinematic violence, social commentary in film, and minimalism in filmmaking. But the sequel is undoubtedly quintessential zombie films, never yet surpassed as a portrayal of human relations degrading in the face of certain death outside of the walls. Together, they are among the few zombie movies to apply intelligence to the doomed scenario.

anniehall-0311. Annie Hall (1977/dir. Woody Allen/USA) – The maturity behind Allen’s stream-of-consciousness musings on relationships is not at all a hard pill to swallow, even as brutal truths that they are. Being a really funny movie gives it personality to make it that easy. Being such a free-for-all presentations of veritable memories on romance identified by anyone makes it impressive.

700full-band-of-outsiders-screenshot10. Band of Outsiders (1964/dir. Jean-Luc Godard/France) – Fizzy as fuck proof that intellectualism can actually be a hell of a lot of fun when you’ve got the right amount of cool, which comes from the people you’re surrounded by. And the three people who front Band of Outsiders are the kinda kids I’d love to be around – but be ashamed to be – so that’s real furniture. Granted, I feel fizzy intellectual cool could apply to a lot of Godard.

tokyostory_49. Tokyo Story (1953/dir. Ozu Yasujiro/Japan) – OK, cool, a painfully heartbreaking reminder of how hard it is for me to talk to my relatives, finding absolutely nothing in common with them. I totally asked for it, Ozu, I had it coming. At least, it’s also constructed perfectly to slowly bring up this conflict. Not a single cut is misplaced, it’s patient ordered filmmaking at its most powerful to accentuate the difference between its characters in silence.

meshes_of_the_afternoon_maya_deren_19438. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943/dir. Maya Deren/USA) – A true work of puzzle cinema, telling so much through so little action conveyed in so little time. Is it solely a nightmare eliciting the fears of eternal confusion and condemnation in the aftermath of death or merely a purgatorial response to the female’s seat in society? Whatever we read from it, the resulting action remains the same… a grievous regret by the end of our journey. Well, if you can give me a better example of short-form abstract storytelling without being completely formless and avant-garde, I’ll eat my shoe. This movie predates David Lynch’s work and puts him in his place and communicates it’s progression so clearly despite the lack of dialogue that its visual language is an important blueprint for any filmmaker who wants their film to mean even half of something. And am I the only person who thinks the Japanese score is funky?

vlcsnap-2012-07-03-00h46m44s977. Persona (1966/dir. Ingmar Bergman/Sweden) – Stream of consciousness work at its most potent. The style never diverges from the fact that there is a story, instead the style strengthens the story and the more personal artistic choices give the film a more subconscious aura. Even if you can’t admire the movie as a whole, you must admit to its power as a series of episodic experimental sequences – such as the provocative opening and the mimicry between Andersson and Ullman in the third act that deconstructs the idea of identity completely.

ek0ycp7iwd6tbf4s5de7zcqa8zm6. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927/dir. F.W. Murnau/USA)– I don’t think a single film is more indisposable to us than Sunrise. Maybe it’s the silent film bias in me, because of course I’m going to adore it for that, but that’d be dismissing how wonderful it is a portrait of the difference between sleepy rural town and bustling sparkling metropolis, the way each setting has a liveliness either in the town’s quiet humanity or the city’s frenzied bombast. It would also be dismissing how timeless and recognizable a love story it is, between lovers and between lives.

8-5_feature_current_video_still5. 8 1/2 (1963/dir. Federico Fellini/Italy) – Plenty of films capture the concept of dreams as per the filmmaker’s unique translation, but none of them hit me as much as Fellini’s own psychological surrealist touches towards director’s block. Probably because it’s a lot of dirty laundry that ends up reeking of Fellini’s personality, but freshly scented by the cool Marcello Mastroianni’s surrogate performance.

rules114. The Rules of the Game (1939/dir. Jean Renoir/France) – I usually don’t get comedies of manners. I really rarely do. I have to watch them more often than read them. But when a filmmaker as smart as Renoir takes the approach of utilizing long takes to provide a more physical atmosphere to Le Colinaire – predating Cuaron and Spielberg and even Welles – I don’t have any trouble at all feeling amongst the bourgeois folk and laughing with them, even with the screen’s divide also allowing I finally get the joke and laugh at them.

passion-of-joan-of-arc-213. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer/France) – Maria Falconetti
suffered unfairly under Carl Theodor Dreyer’s intensely claustrophobic lens but the result is the greatest performance ever put to celluloid and by God are we lucky to have it, maintaining an unforgettably ephemeral gaze stuck in the sweet spot between ecstasy and fear in religion. She is the greatest. God could tell me otherwise and still be wrong.

casablanca_3_bogart2. Casablanca (1942/dir. Michael Curtiz/USA) – Everybody goes to Rick’s and at Rick’s is the story of a tired cynic turned romantic right when the chips are down, so how am I not going to hope my signature looks like Rick’s and I see his face in the mirror every morning. It’s the man I feel like turning into the man I want to become (this is not the only Bogie performance I identify with, though I suppose I’m not nearly self-deprecating enough to put In a Lonely Place on this list). And that’s not even talking about how mechanically flawless the movie is as storytelling, since it’s one of the few times being a Hollywood studio picture actually didn’t throw a wrench in things, but made the small-scale just pack a lot more mythic wartime punch to it. Doesn’t that add tangible triumph to the personal?

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1. Blade Runner (1982/dir. Ridley Scott/USA) – The fact of when and how we saw certain movies almost certainly affects how feel about them, but that’s a can of worms with Blade Runner I won’t dare open with. No, as its own aesthetic without the emotional baggage I came to it with, it still just speaks to me to the point that I have a love for all its versions – even if the Final Cut is the obvious superior. I just really love looking at. I love the vision, I love the futurism. I love the little noir tropes mixed with the little sci fi tropes and I love the rain glistening in the neon lights, like a visual landscape to the Vangelis score. A mix of familiar elements I see from my life in that movie and foreign fantastical pieces I extract solely out of the imagination of Scott, Dick, Paull, and company lead me to meditate with my existential realm and in the end, I always have to admit: my best dreams are in this world that has been created in Blade Runner.

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And as a bit of a post-script to that… Blade Runner‘s release date in America happens to be my very birthday – June 25th. Today, 34 years to Blade Runner, 24 to me.

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Memento Mori

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If you’ll excuse this post, it’s not going to be very much related to film. In fact, I meant to have this done by the time of Hamilton‘s Tony Winning night – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, largely informed by Ron Chernow’s biography. Since I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton continuously for the past five months, there was a particular element of its story that resonates with me stronger than anything else. And I felt it necessary to at least write it down, even if I didn’t immediately intend to put this out, much less make it a Motorbreath post, given how I will be imbuing a bit of my own psychology and personal life into it. Hell, given that I have unfortunately not yet seen the actual production myself, I won’t even be talking about the musical so much as the album as a piece of radio play or concept album.

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In addition to Hamilton, I will also be throwing in another piece of pop culture, albeit not as phenomena effecting as Hamilton under my eye. Reading Scott McCloud’s recent graphic novel The Sculptor (my first narrative work by McCloud after reading both of his most popular works – literally THE books on comics) in the past month will do that, especially when it talks about the same sort of concept in my head that Hamilton brings out of me and circles around.

If you’re not in the mood to read something not film related, you are free to parse through the reviews.

You see, Hamilton is a very dense tale, scripted by Miranda. There’s a lot of inspiration in it, there’s a lot of commentary on diversity, on initiative, on relative intelligence, on what makes a belief so attractive, and so on. It’s not my favorite Broadway musical even running now – not when The Book of Mormon and Fun Home are still open – but it’s one I take a lot of obsessive to in dissecting its lyrics and musical structure. And I don’t mean to dismiss all of the things the play truly is about, because it’s very rewarding to dig into them. In any case, of all the things I discover in Hamilton, not one of them takes more precedence to being why I replay the album over and over than this:

Hamilton – in my eyes – is about two men, not just one, who live in perpetual states of memento mori. The Sculptor is not even slightly ambiguous about it: the very premise of the graphic novel is a man deciding what to do with his artistic powers while knowing he’ll die within the next year. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, as portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical by Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. respectively, are two men absolutely obsessed by how close death is to them – the play opens with regards to the tragedies in Hamilton’s early life, including the death of his mother and suicide of his cousin. Burr himself suffered through untimely death of his entire family (“When they died, they left no instructions/just a legacy to protect”… “If there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died”). David Smith, the titular sculptor, has almost nobody in his life – his mother, father, and sister all dying before his 26 and him being a bit too confrontational to make friends, save for his childhood friend Ollie. That very confrontational attitude is what ostracized him from the art community. Death literally approached him with his contract of unlimited artistic ability for an accelerated death in the form of his own dead uncle.

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How all three characters approach that certainty of death in the face of all the things they want must do is where the works and characters truly went scrambling in different corners of my brain.

I’ll get back to that however, for now, why does that affect me?

Back in 2008, I circled around a group of, shall we say, ‘peers’ rather than ‘friends’. The things we did together usually revolved around running around starting fights, hoodlum work, and basically spending nights getting into trouble that would affect my sleep and my attitude during the day. I had a lot of reasons: I was angry, I felt life was unfair, I didn’t like being just another anonymous face in life, work stressed me out, the future scared me, we could be here all day. And the only escape I found was taking it out on anyone whenever I could. And three of these folk, as I found out later, took my drive to jump into near-suicide so seriously that they did what any concerned individuals would do…

… They put out a pool on how and when I’d die.

I like to joke about how I’m more offended I was not allowed to buy into the pool than I am at the pool existing. In any case, the latest a bet was made was that I’d die before I turned 25.

Fast forward to today – I’ve almost immediately rushed to New York City (which also happens to be the setting of Hamilton and The Sculptor) on account of learning a friend of mine has passed and dealing with the shitshow surrounding her passing. It’s stressful, it’s complicated, it’s distracting enough to keep my mind off of my own troubles back in Miami, but it’s overwhelming enough that I have to spend every free second I have trying to put myself into something artistic or enjoying the city to unwind before I go back into the shit. It’s like five different caseloads at once. Excuse me if this post is my venting, but I’m going to at least wrap it around the main concept.

In the middle of all this, I’m thinking back to many times I’d sit and think about how many people I use to know and try to help and how many times I’d find out that they’re underground now and it starts with your mind when you could fill a good amount of a cemetery with your memories. It starts to make you feel like you’re nothing but damage, a living omen. It sucks.

And it reminds me that maybe eventually my day will be coming and my thoughts turn to the quickening perception of time speeding my death soon. And I’m remembering that pool one more time.

I am turning 24 within the next few days and it’s getting harder and harder for me not to be scared of how close that edge feels. Sure, I’ve taken things easy, but I haven’t really gotten myself to a point where being a modern-day goon feels out of the question. And it means I don’t feel out of harm’s way.

Cutting away from all that to return back to The Sculptor and Hamilton – Hamilton is a character who KNOWS he’s gonna die, he feels it in his bones, and he relishes it. He’s so transparent that within minutes of meeting him, George Washington (portrayed by Christopher Jackson) calls him out on having a “head full of fantasies of dying like a martyr.” Something we know to be true as Hamilton digs into “My Shot” with the acknowledgement “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory”, a verse that sneaks in constantly including “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” as he euphorically expresses his excitement at being on the battlefield and the possibility of finally getting the violent death “on the battlefield in glory” (from “Right Hand Man”) until he remembers “my Eliza’s expecting me/not only that, my Eliza’s expecting”, snapping him out of it as he recognizes that now he has started something he is obliged to finish. This is also something Washington calls Hamilton out on earlier in “Right Hand Man” – the music itself abruptly stopping to push in the line “Dying is easy young, man. Living is harder.”

He has to die later, if he can help it. His wife Eliza (portrayed by Phillipa Soo) continuously reminds him to “Stay Alive” in the number of the same name, “That Would Be Enough” (established in meta mode as “the first chapter where you decide to stay” – Hamilton realizes his imminent family demands he eschew his death wish), and “Non-Stop”, adding in that he needs to take a moment to recognize that he has something to appreciate in his life “Look at where we are, look at where we started, the fact that you’re alive is a miracle”. Hamilton fails to recognize this, distracted from Eliza by his self-imposed workload, his eventual adultery, and his kinship with Angelica Schuyler.

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This doesn’t stop Death from remaining on his mind, once again transparently enough that his peers note that he writes “like you’re running out of time” in “Non-Stop” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” and it still hangs around him like an atmosphere as his best friend John Laurens and son Phillip (both portrayed by Anthony Ramos to drive this home) both meet untimely deaths, both of them at the end of a gun, Phillip himself in the middle of a dispute that Hamilton feels he is responsible for (and which eventually mirrors Hamilton’s own death at the hands of an enraged Burr, feeling antagonized by Hamilton). It’s the sort of thing that resonates with the sort of life I lived, people getting hurt or killed around me that didn’t need to and feeling like I was the one who set off these dominoes, even while Washington tells Hamilton “you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. Such an acknowledgement of Death as a surrounding presence reminds me of a passage from David Wong’s This Book Is Full of Spiders, Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It that captures my own thoughts when it occurs:

John sat down in the cornfield and tried to think of a dozen ways to talk himself out of it. The same rationalization—the exact same—that was running through the heads of dozens and dozens of people inside those army barriers up ahead. The families of those firemen, and the friends and coworkers of that reporter, and all of the other people who had died in an instant when everything went to shit: death was something that happened to other people. Strangers. Extras in the background. We don’t die. They die.

Smith in The Sculptor simply doesn’t recognize the gravity of his imminent fate until it’s too late. It’s all white noise for him, he’s surrounded by dead memories, he had nothing to look forward to, and nothing he has been proud of. He outright tells Death to its face, that it’s not a thing he fears approaching. It is only once he makes this contract that things start to fall in place for his life and it’s only when he’s getting closer to the end of his life that he recognizes his life has literally just began. But this is not the only thing hanging The Sculptor up about death, nor even Hamilton. See David Smith and Alexander Hamilton are more than just a pair of dead men walking…

“God help and forgive me/I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me” Hamilton tells Burr in “The Room Where It Happens” and this is more or less the motivation behind David Smith, his frustration at not being recognized for his art due to feeling hindered and gagged out by the people he works with, hence by the time we meet him he is alone in every sense of the word. He has tossed away every potential relationship he could have gained and lost the rest as they were out of his hands. His artwork is more than just his way to deal with his memories and his pain – one particular sculpture based on a happy hopeful memory of his disabled sister; others I can’t really go into without spoiling the hell out of the story  – but it’s not enough for him to have that venting. When Hamilton mentions writing his “testament to his pain” – his early life – in the numbers “Alexander Hamilton” and “Hurricane”, it was literally to get him somewhere – to get him noted by his community and sent to America to move up. Smith’s art is meant to establish a legacy for himself to be remembered. This is further brought as an objective by the deliberate anonymity McCloud selects in naming the character – Smith shares his name with a real-life American abstract sculptor, a waitress’ cousin, and a police detective investigating him.

Hamilton runs towards the makings of his legacy (and obviously succeeds), Smith can only hope that he makes it before his numbered days run out. Burr, to return to him, is outright arrested by his own knowledge of death, covering it by stating that he’s “willing to wait for it”, until he recognizes in the number “The Room Where It Happens” that such indecision won’t cut it, starting a relentless attempt to drag Hamilton down in order to reach his spot (I’m sure I’m far from the first to note the Hamilton-Burr relationship incredibly similar to Mozart-Salieri, an envious recognition of talent in the form of a man found to be unsophisticated).

Anyway, like I said, Hamilton does what he set to do, even if he doesn’t feel it in the moment of his death in “The World Was Wide Enough”. He died with a nation built behind him, with so many things he created, standing by his words even at the cost of his own life. He may not have been satisfied, but he did what he came to do and more… “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is testament to that.

It is the weirdest most ridiculous feeling to be absolutely smothered by feeling like I’m going to die soon, but it can’t be something I’m not thinking of when I feel so deep in it and don’t know if I can or want to get out of it. In addition to this, my feeling like I haven’t done anything I’ve truly felt I was brought here to do – nor if I truly recognized my purpose – but I’ve run out of time to figure it out is absolutely arresting.

The Sculptor, in any case, responds to the concept of legacy in a much more shocking (albeit somewhat muddled) fashion and it involves most of its final chapter involving developments that seem frankly cruel on McCloud’s part and close to nihilism. I’ll avoid spoiling this. But, it begins with David literally gloating about the security of his legacy to Death’s face and suddenly dealing with the cards life hands right in that moment. And he simply strives to make every second count to stamping his place in history as well as the people he loved in his final days until it’s suddenly cut short…

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And its literally penultimate moment: The Sculptor suggests that nothing is forever. Nobody is going to remember anybody or anything until the end of time. Everything is consigned to oblivion.

And that’s absolutely fine – it doesn’t make it any less futile to try to make a difference in the world and be remembered. But you shouldn’t take it as a failure as long as you left your mark on the people around you. And of course the final note of The Sculptor  ends up becoming suggesting that David will definitely be on everybody’s mind for a long time – followed by a jaw-dropping text afterword by McCloud that suddenly gave away the graphic novel and David’s identity as an extension of McCloud’s own heartbreak. In a graphic novel that had many moments that already nearly wrecked me because I saw so much of myself in it, that was the moment that got closest to breaking me.

In any case, Hamilton and The Sculptor had been on my mind since I first experienced them and they simply mixed into the whirlwind with my mind thinking back on how my life has gone to this point and if I think I’ll prove the same people who swore I was going to die young wrong and if I don’t, if I can be ok with how things went.

I think Hamilton and The Sculptor both help me put things in perspective enough that I could answer “yes” to both questions. Besides I promised someone who meant a lot to me that I’d at least make it to 30. But recognizing how Hamilton and The Sculptor comment on being stuck in memento mori helps me square it up in myself and that’s why both works matter as much as they do to me.

Raise a glass. Here’s to making it past 25 and beyond.

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