- The first 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The last 10 minutes of if . . . .
- The first half of Barry Lyndon but not the second half
- Every minute of Days of Heaven
- Every minute of Russian Ark
- The opening sequence of Ponyo
- The last five minutes of Aguirre, the Wrath of God
- The closing titles sequence of INLAND EMPIRE
RIP film critic Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012.
Sarris wrote film criticism—meaningful, real writing, not just film “reviews”—for half a century, publishing several books, and writing regularly for first The Village Voice and then The New York Observer. Sarris was one of the earliest proponents in the US of the auteur theory of film (he’s credited with coining the word in his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962“), first put forward by Truffaut and other persons active in the French New Wave. In 1971, Sarris got into a good ole fashioned fight with fellow film critic Pauline Kael over the auteur issue when he responded to her Citizen Kane essay “Raising Kane,” contending that, yes, the film was guided by the unique vision of Orson Welles (even if others helped). His response essay is still worth reading.
In his 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Sarris famously named a “pantheon” of 14 top-tier directors: here’s that list:
Joseph Von Sternberg
Sarris later added Billy Wilder to this pantheon.
If you like lists, check out this archive of Sarris’s favorite films by year—from 1958 to 2006.
Like any great critic, whether or not one ultimately agreed with Sarris was beside the point—his scholarship and criticism was insightful and enlightening the kind of writing that frankly makes for better film audiences.
For a more detailed obit, check out Scott Tobias’s piece at AV Club.
1984’s Dune is unquestionably the worst movie of Lynch’s career, and it’s pretty darn bad. In some ways it seems that Lynch was miscast as its director: Eraserhead had been one of those sell-your-own-plasma-to-buy-the-film-stock masterpieces, with a tiny and largely unpaid cast and crew. Dune, on the other hand, had one of the biggest budgets in Hollywood history, and its production staff was the size of a small Caribbean nation, and the movie involved lavish and cutting-edge special effects (half the fourteen-month shooting schedule was given over to miniatures and stop-action). Plus Herbert’s novel itself is incredibly long and complex, and so besides all the headaches of a major commercial production financed by men in Ray-Bans Lynch also had trouble making cinematic sense of the plot, which even in the novel is convoluted to the point of pain. In short, Dune’s direction called for a combination technician and administrator, and Lynch, though as good a technician as anyone in film, is more like the type of bright child you sometimes see who’s ingenious at structuring fantasies and gets totally immersed in them but will let other kids take part in them only if he retains complete imaginative control over the game and its rules and appurtenances—in short very definitely not an administrator.
Watching Dune again on video you can see that some of its defects are clearly Lynch’s responsibility, e.g. casting the nerdy and potato-faced Kyle MacLachlan as an epic hero and the Police’s resoundingly unthespian Sting as a psycho villain, or—worse—trying to provide plot exposition by having characters’ thoughts audibilized (w/ that slight thinking-out-loud reverb) on the soundtrack while the camera zooms in on the character making a thinking-face, a cheesy old device that Saturday Night Live had already been parodying for years when Dune came out. The overall result is a movie that’s funny while it’s trying to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of a flop as there is, and Dune was indeed a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop. But a good part of the incoherence is the responsibility of De Laurentiis’s producers, who cut thousands of feet of film out of Lynch’s final print right before the movie’s release, apparently already smelling disaster and wanting to get the movie down to more like a normal theatrical running-time. Even on video, it’s not hard to see where a lot of these cuts were made; the movie looks gutted, unintentionally surreal.
In a strange way, though, Dune actually ended up being Lynch’s “big break” as a filmmaker. The version of Dune that finally appeared in the theaters was by all reliable reports heartbreaking for him, the kind of debacle that in myths about Innocent, Idealistic Artists In The Maw Of The Hollywood Process signals the violent end of the artist’s Innocence—seduced, overwhelmed, fucked over, left to take the public heat and the mogul’s wrath. The experience could easily have turned Lynch into an embittered hack (though probably a rich hack), doing f/x-intensive gorefests for commercial studios. Or it could have sent him scurrying to the safety of academe, making obscure plotless l6mm.’s for the pipe-and-beret crowd. The experience did neither. Lynch both hung in and, on some level, gave up. Dune convinced him of something that all the really interesting independent filmmakers—Campion, the Coens, Jarmusch, Jaglom—seem to steer by. “The experience taught me a valuable lesson,” he told an interviewer years later. “I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don’t have final cut.”
—From “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace; collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
The Best Film Titles of 2011
The Tree of Life: Solid, evocative, stately.
Melancholia: Simple and meaningful, but also easy to remember.
Star Watching Dog: I have no idea what this movie is, but I love this as an idea or as an image, or as a plot for a film. It makes me want to find out which of those three it actually is. If I’m lucky it will be all three.
We Need to Talk About Kevin: This has the right kind of loaded evocation to it. It’s great as a long-but-not-too-long title.
Tyrannosaur: Awesome. One word with a huge amount of weight, probably the best title of the year except for the obvious problem that it probably confused people into thinking the film was about dinosaurs. But other than that it doesn’t get better than this.
Your Sister’s Sister: I don’t really know what this means. Is it wordplay? Is there plot relevance? It makes me want to know though.
Another Earth: A brilliant combination of two words that manages in three syllables to open up hours upon hours of thoughts and possibilities.
Outside Satan: I would compare to the previous entry. A great two words that sounds good and suggests a lot of weird things, many of which I can’t quite put my finger on. Definitely makes me want to see what happens in the movie.
I Am A Good Person/I Am A Bad Person: Maybe it’s too long. And maybe it’s totally confusing. But I would watch something called this for sure.
The Rabbi’s Cat: Well it sounds like I know upfront two things I can expect to see. And I like both of these things.
The Catechism Cataclysm: Alliteration sucks. Here’s an exception that proves the rule.
Blackthorn: I would buy a cut of meat called Blackthorn, I would buy a bottle of wine called Blackthorn, I would vacation in a mountain city called Blackthorn, I would buy an album from a doom metal band called Blackthorn. Blackthorn would be a good word for many things. This time it is a movie.
Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver: Double puns! Really? Okay fine, sure. It’s better than all the Air Bud titles combined.
Red State: Two evocative words, a sort of double-entendre but still easy to remember.
The Future: I would eat a burger called The Future, I would name my car The Future, I would name my dog The Future, I would love for my friends to give me the nickname The Future. So yeah I would watch a movie called The Future.
I Melt With You: Memorable and emotional, it tells me nothing about the film in any literal way, but it gives me some kind of sense of expectation.
Hobo With a Shotgun: Perfect. Truth in advertising; we’re all on the same page here.
The Worst Film Titles of 2011
Margin Call: What the hell is a Margin Call? Why would I voluntarily pay for anything called Margin Call. It sounds like something your accountant would suggest, but that’s why you hire that guy: to deal with boring stuff like Margin Calls. I would rather be watching a good movie than worrying about a Margin Call. If there are two things, and one is called Tyrannosaur and the other is Margin Call, which do you think I will be buying?
Hugo: Hugo is a stupid little word and I don’t like saying it or hearing it. The only thing worse is the original title, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Gross. Cabret is far too close to Cabaret and Cabaret is least appealing noun I can think of.
Weekend: Wow, title your indie movie the same thing as a famous art film. Always a good idea when your only potential audience is the miniscule slice of people who know this. Watch for the director’s next small festival hit, sure to be called The 400 Blows.
The Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best: Alliteration is the worst.
A Beautiful Belly: Further proof of the above sentiment, only this one is also gross sounding. The only way I can even imagine saying this out loud is if it was the humorous name of a menu item at the best BBQ joint in Atlanta or something.
The Skin I Live In: I blame the second-language aspect here, but something about this sentence is annoying.
Martha Marcy May Marlene: AKA Marble-Mouthed Nonsense. I will concede that this one may be actually brilliant, as everyone who sees the film seems to universally love the title after the face. Still, there is definitely something idiotic about giving yr film a title no one can remember.
Crazy, Stupid, Love.: I hate seeing this written down, I hated typing it, I hate hearing it out loud and I can’t imagine speaking it. There is a weird kind of perfection here. Three words that are just fine on their own, but somehow in this order they make me want to die.
Take This Waltz: And shove it.
No One Killed Jessica: Oh well that’s a relief, you had me worried for a second there. I guess I can skip watching the movie altogether and go eat some lunch or something.
Water for Elephants: This sounds like part of some little piece of wisdom like “pearls before swine” or something, except that you think about it for five seconds and realize that it isn’t and that it’s just dumb sounding.
Twixt: This is one of those words that maybe girls under the age of 16 could get away with saying. Or like the name of new line of sexy dolls, like the new Bratz or something.
Soul Surfer: Soul Surfer sounds like the shittiest tattoo idea possible.
The Beaver: This immediately undercuts the notion that it can be at all serious by virtue of the obvious vulgar connotations. Unless of course the writer only chose the word “Beaver” because he thought it would be such a riot to see it written everywhere and to have serious actors say it a million times for two hours. So either way what we have here is totally ignorant or absurdly immature. Count me out either way.
Our Idiot Brother: If I wanted to watch a shitty ’90s sitcom I would have stayed home.
This Is Not A Movie: Yes it is.
Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins: This is so stupid that maybe it belongs on the “Best” list. Nah, maybe not.
Cowboys & Aliens: This and Hobo With a Shotgun are two sides of the same coin. This side is the shitty one that loses all the time.
I Am Number Four: The only way this could be worse is if it was I Am Number Two.
Green Lantern: The discussion surrounding this movie’s failure brought up a lot of valuable points: 1) Ryan Reynolds is The Worst, 2) The movie was a piece of shit and 3) Martin Campbell is not an auteur. But the big point I think everyone missed is that The Green Lantern is also just a stupid combination of three English words. I don’t care how long he’s been a comic book hero, please compare the title of this movie to the other famous DC tentpole franchises: Batman and Superman. And please analyze the various connotations involved in three titles: One is a man who is also a bat, alright cool. The other is a man who is super, yeah alright I bet he’s pretty tough. This is a lantern that is somehow green… is this meant to surprise or excite me? “No shit!? All my lanterns are blue, this guy must be AMAZING!” Even The Green Hornet is a better title because it has the word Hornet in it and everyone knows that Hornet is basically the coolest word in all of entomology, with the obvious exception of “Scorpion.” No movie with the word Lantern in the title will ever gross 500 million dollars, unless preceded by the words “Harry Potter” or “Twilight.” Lanterns suck and somehow this fact is known deep in the hearts of all Americans.
A Good Old Fashioned Orgy: The obvious sarcasm just tells me right away that this is insincere bullshit.
Straw Dogs: As the title for some weird VHS tape you find at the video store and rent on a lark only to be blown away by how gnarly and intense movies were allowed to be in the ’70s: Yes Straw Dogs is a great title, and it’s implacable weirdness somehow fully encapsulates everything strange an unnerving about that movie. But as the title for a contemporary product on the market for people who have no built-in context I can’t imagine anything worse. It might as well have been called Marble Lanterns, it would have done just as well.
Another Happy Day: Either the movie is actually about a succession of days that are happy, or it is very obviously the exact opposite. Both options annoy me and put me off for different reasons. They could have called it Are We Having Fun Yet? and it might have been a bigger hit, but that is equally stupid and probably taken already.
Ti West’s tense, suspenseful 2009 film The House of the Devil is a slow burning, stomach bending study in horror tropes. It synthesizes its sources (Carrie, Psycho, urban legends about babysitters and Satanic cults, Rosemary’s Baby, the 1980s), to move beyond mere pastiche or parody. At first, the dance montage appears to offer a respite from the nervous dread that West spends most of the film building—it’s also another dead-on moment of eighties filmmaking—but the montage’s content (the violence of the careening billiard balls, the furtive glance into the dark basement, the breaking of the vase) ironically redoubles the isolation of the film’s protagonist. The affirming, protective power of her Walkman cannot resonate beyond her big earphones.
The House of the Devil is a great, smart, scary film that you may have overlooked. Recommended.
[Editorial note--We originally ran this post in the summer of 2009 when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was in theaters. We run it again now to celebrate the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (we also are running it again 'cause we're lazy)].
First thing’s first: if you’re looking for Harry Potter slash fiction, you’ll have to check out our original Harry Potter Sex Romp post for links, you dirty dawg (you’re weird but you’re welcome). Just like that post a few years ago, this post’s title is really kinda sorta mostly irrelevant to what this post is about. What is it about? I want to take a look at some of the homoerotic tension in the new Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. If you want to find a proper review of the film, with plot summary and insight, shop around. That’s not gonna happen here.
Also, there will be SPOILERS, okay? Fair warning.
Okay. So, I saw the new film last night (henceforth HP6). And it was pretty good or whatever. But I noticed a subtext that cracked me up quite a bit, an underlying motif that might be lost on most summer blockbuster audiences. I’m talking about the implicit love between men and boys in this film.
At the beginning of the film, in an apparently insignificant scene, young Harry makes a date with an attractive young girl. However, old man Dumbledore shows up and dashes any hopes for a late sumer romance. Instead of meeting up with this lithe young thing, Harry has to grip hard to Dumbledore’s stiff arm to be apparated away to meet Horace Slughorn, an old potions master. Dumbledore uses Harry as fresh young bait for Slughorn, who has something the old wizard needs–a key memory about the development of Tom Riddle–Voldemort–a former protégé of Horace’s (lots of mentors and mentees here). Much of the narrative’s conflict revolves around the task Dumbledore has given Harry; it’s almost as if Dumbledore is pimping out the young wizard. These multiple man-boy relationships are doubled darkly in the failing bond between Snape and emo Draco.
In contrast, heterosexual relationships between the teens are treated with a lightness and even frivolity that codes such romances as ephemeral, or perhaps even inessential. Although the film solidifies the groundwork for the long-term relationships between the series’ principals (Harry-Ginny/Ron-Hermione), the real love story here is between older men and their young apprentices. HP6 depicts teen romance as silly without coloring any of its fragility with pathos. What the film really argues for is a sort of Greek or Platonic ideal of love; that love exists as a conduit for wisdom, passed from an older, experienced man to a younger boy in exchange for some of that youth’s beauty and vitality. Although moments of teenage adventure punctuate the film, the real scope of heroic encounters are shared between older men and their attendant lads (particularly Dumbledore and Harry, although even Snape, through the annotations of his old textbook, manages to plant part of himself into Harry).
The film reaches its climax with a lot of phallic wand waving and a bit of indecision over who gets to shoot off at whom. The climactic scene encodes the strange aggressions and series of shifting allegiances between the male wizards present. Dumbledore becomes the tragic figure; his death allows for Harry’s maturation, enacting a definitive arc in Harry’s Oedipal complex, where Dumbledore is both father figure and secret sex object. The weight of this tragedy initiates Harry into the adult world and adult responsibilities.
So why bother to write about this? No reason really, and I’m sure plenty of readers will find my analysis insupportable, silly, offensive, or just plain wrong. That’s fine. I guess I mostly find it remarkable that this motif should prevail so heavily in a summer blockbuster. There was also a whole drug motif going on–so many of the film’s plot development hinge on the ingestion of mind-altering substances–so maybe I just like the idea that the film is kinda sorta subversive.
Let me admit biases up front: for the past few years, I’ve looked forward every Wednesday to Nathan Rabin’s regular column at the AV Club,“My Year of Flops,” where he reviews–and reappraises–some of the worst-received films of all time. I’m also a fan of Rabin’s other columns, “THEN! That’s What They Called Music!” and “Nashville or Bust,” as well as the general tone of the AV Club, which he no doubt helps set as its head writer. I also thought Rabin’s memoir The Big Rewind was pretty good. So, I’m probably not the most objective person to review Rabin’s new book My Year of Flops, which comprises 35 of Rabin’s past columns, 15 new entries, and interview snippets with some of the actors who had the (mis)fortune to turn up in these flops. I’ll do my best to assess how well these columns–most of which were written for the internet–hold up as a book.
So, what, exactly, constitutes a flop? There are the biggies here, of course, infamous studio-busting career-killers like Heaven’s Gate, Battlefield Earth, and Ishtar; the batshit crazy weirdfests that were destined to become cult classics, like Southland Tales, Howard the Duck, and The Apple; the disposable movies made to be forgotten, like Bratz: The Movie; there are forgotten and overlooked oddballs, like Robert Altman’s teen sex comedy, O.C. and Stiggs, and Gospel Road, where Johnny Cash tells the life story of Jesus. All of these films share disappointing (or non-existent) box office results as well as general critical disapproval (or at least bewilderment). As part of his revisionist project, Rabin ends each entry by declaring the re-appraised film a “Secret Success,” a “Fiasco,” or a “Failure.” Tellingly, most of the time Rabin finds his subject to be a “Fiasco.” He’s willing to take each film on its own terms; he’s also incredibly open to viewing each film in a way that transcends the trappings of its marketing to an intended audience.
Take, for example Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a film macho novelist Norman Mailer thought it would be a totally sound idea to not only write but direct. Rabin’s initial analysis derides the film for its cardboard characters, debased gimmickry, and embarrassing dialog. By the end of his reassessment, however, Rabin has given the would-be thriller a new life as “a darkly comic, horror-tinged melodrama about the emptiness of excess and the soul-crushing costs of pursuing endless pleasure.” His review rests not on a personal ironic vision, but rather on a willingness to see Mailer’s own ironic vision at work behind (and in front of) the camera.
In the same way, Rabin is able to put aside–even while acknowledging–the dreadful reputations surrounding films like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate. Even though the latter film essentially destroyed both its studio and the maverick filmmaking style of the 1970s, Rabin finds in it more than a slight redemption–he finds a flawed masterpiece, a gorgeous treatise on Manifest Destiny that doesn’t deserve its reputation. Similarly, Rabin would have us believe that Istar actually is funny. Both of these entries are remarkable not just in their clear revisionist goal, but also for how instructive they are. In both write-ups, Rabin reveals much of how movies are made, and how movies are made flops–the ways that infighting, firings, and studio expectations can damn a film before it even premieres.
While My Year of Flops is instructive in its criticism, it’s also very entertaining. Rabin has a keen sense of satire, and if he occasionally tips into snark, it’s always earned (and if you have a problem with a writer being snarky at the expense of Battlefield Earth, well, you’re probably a prig anyway). A great illustration of how Rabin combines his sense of humor with his instructive criticism in his coinage of the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”–
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors, who use them to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl serves as a means to an end, not a flesh-and-blood human being. Once life lessons have been imparted, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl might as well disappear in a poof! for her life’s work is done.
Cameron Crowe is particularly guilty of employing the MPDG trope, but you can find her pretty much everywhere you look–at least in the domain of rom-coms. Rabin proposes the term in his first entry in the series (also the first entry in the book) a review of Crowe’s much maligned Elizabethtown. Rabin finds it to be a Fiasco. In a move that sums up both Rabin’s program and his generous spirit, Rabin concludes My Year of Flops by re-reassessing Elizabethtown–he now dubs it a Secret Success. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that a critic should-be a starry-eyed optimist who finds the best of all possible worlds in each work, I do think that it has become far too easy to outright dismiss someone’s hard work. We live in a hyper-mediated age that moves too fast: all propositions are disposable, including the arts. Rabin, in taking each work on its own terms, does a service to both criticism and creativity.
Rabin’s own columns might, of course, fall prey to this disposable age. Today’s columns and blog posts are meant to be consumed quickly; although the best might find a life of new clicks in cyberspace, most are tomorrow’s virtual bird-cage liners. The blog-book is thus a tenuous grasp at some permeability–or at least respectability. My Year of Flops is fun, energetic, and insightful, but it does not bear sustained reading. The entries are best consumed one at time, probably between other tasks (or other books). It’s a great book for the john. Still, in an ideal library, My Year of Flops would stand squarely along side any other work of film criticism (it’s certainly sharper than anything by Leonard Maltin or Gene Shalit). Ultimately, Rabin does here what all great critics do–he makes a case for the works he’s appraising. He makes you want to see his Secret Successes and even the Fiascos (and, at times, even the Failures). I’ll even forgive him for making me watch The Apple. Recommended.
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film House is comic-surrealist horror on par with Tsukamoto’s Lynch-soaked aberration Tetsuo, the Iron Man and Miike’s profoundly disturbing/hilarious take on country life, The Happiness of the Katukuris. Read more about Obayashi’s film here. Three clips from House–