Last Ten Films: An Introduction

Infinitely Polar Bear

Infinitely Polar Bear


In 2013, I tried to write about every new film that I saw (and mostly succeeded!); consequently, in 2014 I was burned out on movie reviews and shifted my attention towards 1000+ word essays on each of my 100 favorite albums (I’m currently a third of the way through this ambitious project). Naturally, I’m left with little time to write about cinema. Although I no longer see over 100 film in theaters/per year as I did a decade ago, I remain an above-average moviegoer–usually at least one, maybe two theatrical screenings per week (my home viewing is more sporadic, thanks to TV, which only the staunchest film snob would deny is as important an artistic medium today.)

Going forward, I’ll be tracking/writing about every ten films I’ve seen, probably around 500 words (or more, if so moved). In each post, I’ll list the ten films in chronological order of viewing, along with the director, year and a rating out of 10. Titles for which this is at least my second viewing will have a star after them. First up: films seen between June 25 and July 24.

Wild Strawberries (Bergman, 1957) 7/10
The Wolfpack (Moselle, 2015) 4/10
Vertigo* (Hitchcock, 1958) 10/10
Spy (Feig, 2015) 6/10
Amy (Kapadia, 2015) 8/10
California Split* (Altman, 1974) 9/10
The Birds* (Hitchcock, 1963) 10/10
Infinitely Polar Bear (Forbes, 2014) 7/10
Speed* (de Bont, 1994) 6/10
3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets (Silver, 2015) 8/10

I suspect the selection here is typical of every ten consecutive films I’ll see: a straight-down-the-middle split of new and old titles, the former mostly indies, documentaries and foreign language films with the occasional mainstream outlier (one sentence review of Spy: good enough that McCarthy should continue working with Feig despite diminishing returns following Bridesmaids and The Heat.)

Summer tends to be a fallow time for new indies; nothing yet has really broken out like Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and Blue Jasmine (2013). Frankly, I don’t see potential for much on the horizon (I’ve already pondered whether people will come to see The End Of The Tour, which has grown on me since it opened IFF Boston in April). Despite being difficult to watch at times, Amy is the closest thing we have right now to a “big” doc and its innovative structure (culled from home video footage and audio commentary with no talking head interviews whatsoever) is as notable as Winehouse’s predictable-but-still-astonishing career trajectory. The more traditional doc 3 ½ Minutes… is just as hard to watch: its account of a black Florida teen murdered for playing music too loud in a gas station parking lot won’t receive a fraction of Amy’s audience, but its coverage of racial profiling and “stand your ground” laws is just as probing as Amy’s observation of strength necessary for celebrity, and obviously more relevant.

Infinitely Polar Bear, finally in general release after premiering at Sundance in 2014, is more typical a summer indie: pleasant if slight alternative programming against the seasonal blockbusters with a big-name in the lead. Mark Ruffalo probably doesn’t stand a chance of an Oscar nod, but he pulls off portraying a bipolar Boston Brahmin-turned hippie dad with the same ease as he did his Foxcatcher wrestler, which did secure him one. As for this summer’s other buzzed-about indie doc The Wolfpack, I’ll give it this—it has a unique, entertaining story for sure, but one I didn’t wholly buy. So clumsily told that I was left distracted by the seething gaps in its narrative, this was more a turn-off than any speculation of staged scenes or misleading information.

After spending a long time on a short list of classics I really should’ve seen by now, I finally made it to Wild Strawberries, and it confirmed how overrated I find what I’ve seen of Bergman’s pre-Persona oeuvre (though naturally, it looked superb on the Brattle’s big screen). As for the re-watches, apart from The Birds (a thrill to view outdoors on the Greenway), I hadn’t seen any of them in over a decade. I doubt Vertigo’s appeal will ever diminish for me; California Split isn’t quite up there with The Long Goodbye re: 70s Altman California sleaze, although it gives an exceptionally vivid idea of how people and places really looked at the time, and Gould/Segal remains so rich a pairing I wish they’d done more together. As for Speed, its neat premise is undercut by what would become an unfortunate trend in Hollywood action flicks—to find a natural resolution, then introduce an outlandish twist that extends things for another half-hour because bigger is better, right? Didn’t Hitchcock arguably master that ploy (and seem comparatively subtle about it) way back in Vertigo?

My (Fake) Sight & Sound Film Poll Ballot

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Once every ten years, British cineaste rag Sight & Sound conducts a critics’ poll of all-time greatest films. With the latest edition’s results imminent, here’s what my ballet would look like if I had one. The poll requires participants to list only ten films, which is a preposterous thing for any film geek to consider (but most of us love doing it anyway).

In chronological order…

1. SUNRISE: A TALE OF TWO HUMANS (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1927)
A majestic summation of what silent cinema could accomplish, and almost by default, since technology rendered this particular aesthetic obsolete shortly thereafter. Although of its time in a visual sense, it endures because it depicts an age-old conflict of morals without moralizing, instead expressing the simple, pure joy of being alive and sincerely in love.

2. BRINGING UP BABY (Howard Hawks, USA, 1938)
As I wrote when I recently saw it, the essential screwball comedy and a strong candidate for best all-time film comedy: every single scene faultlessly jam-packed with punchy, witty dialogue, every last joke hitting its target with agility and grace, every ounce of dazzling chemistry between Hepburn and Grant effortlessly sparkling.

3. VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
Because every ballot needs at least one slot for Hitchcock. Because 50+ years on, it still speaks volumes about how we’re all voyeurs (especially moviegoers). Because this is James Stewart’s best onscreen persona: curious, driven, and tormented. Because odd blonde goddess Kim Novak still beguiles and comes off as enigmatic as Marilyn.

4. PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati, France, 1967)
I’ve haven’t seen this in awhile given that it’s the one of two films I have to watch in a theater, never on TV (the other is by Stanley Kubrick—guess which one). No other director viewed film as a multi-dimensional canvas in the way Tati did here, taking physical slapstick to new heights of cerebral sophistication without forgetting to be funny.

5. MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (Robert Altman, USA, 1971)
One could say Altman turned the western inside out with this revisionist take on the genre, but what he actually did was radically alter how one could tell a story by dropping the audience into the thick of it as if they were Warren Beatty’s McCabe, a stranger in a town not yet fully built. A rich mess of overheard dialogue, muted lighting and Leonard Cohen songs all cohere into something transformative, a new way of comprehension via textural and poetic detail.

6. ANNIE HALL (Woody Allen, USA 1977)
I viewed this again two weeks ago and as a romantic comedy, it holds up nearly as well as BRINGING UP BABY, but with a twist: it takes the earlier film’s greatest attributes and so finely refracts them through Allen’s sensibility that the result is like a perfect dramatization of one of his stand-up routines. And it might’ve been nothing but wacky comic navel gazing if not for Diane Keaton’s input and inspiration, which gives the film its soul.

7. THE LAST OF ENGLAND (Derek Jarman, UK, 1987)
Because in his truncated life, Jarman did more than arguably any other contemporary filmmaker to combine and recontextualize disparate genres and formats. Because he introduced us to Tilda Swinton. Because this scathing, explosive attack on a country ravaged by Thatcherism retains all of its power a quarter century on. Because he gave a voice to the queer and the HIV-positive at a time when they were ignored.

8. BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France, 1999)
Claire Denis’ idiosyncratic take on Melville’s Billy Budd is a brilliantly conceived, gorgeously framed Rubik’s Cube of a film that’s also a rigorous, kinetic paean to the male form. As it pieces together a purely visual language, at its center, the wiry, wound-up Denis Levant can barely conceal a mounting intensity the film keeps bottled up until it’s released in an unexpected, euphoric finale.

9. MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, USA, 2001)
Constructed from scraps of a rejected television pilot, Lynch’s weirdly emotional mindfuck of a film fearlessly explores connections between dreams, reality and the movies and all the sublime and more-often-than-not terrifying possibilities that surface as those things overlap. I can’t imagine another film I’d want to watch on endless repeat—just thinking about the opening mélange of skittering images and swing music gives me goose bumps.

10. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001)
Despite often citing it as my favorite film, I almost didn’t include it here since MOONRISE KINGDOM gave me hope that Anderson may surpass it someday. Then I considered the film’s insane, jewel-box attention to detail, its cast of enchantingly flawed characters and the fact that with each viewing, I’ve taken away more from it. I haven’t seen it since 2007, so I’m speculating that it still holds up. With good faith, it earns a spot here.

Because all-time top ten lists are ridiculous and because I can’t resist, here are ten more I wish I could include on this ballot: The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In the Rain, Rosemary’s Baby, Young Frankenstein, This is Spinal Tap, High Hopes, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, The Sweet Hereafter, There Will Be Blood.