The Top Five for 2004
Last year I had to scramble to find five movies for my Top Five, and this year I have too many!
Kill Bill Vol. 2
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Two documentaries about Yves Saint Laurent
There’s a cinephile movie theater here in town called Film Forum. They show more or less only movies that you can’t see anywhere else. In October ’02 they showed *Eyes Without a Face*, a French horror movie from 1960. It was a newly restored print, and I would bet that it played at Film Forum, some movie theater in Paris, and another in Berlin, and that was IT. That’s what kind of thing you see there. Last January I read in the NY Times that they were showing two documentaries about Yves Saint Laurent, the great French fashion designer who retired in 2002. They were under 90 minutes each, but Film Forum decided to charge full price for each anyway. I thought, as long as I was spending $20 to see these two movies (and I had to see both of them), why not spend $65 and get a one-year membership? With the membership I get into movies for only $5, and it has been well worth it.
I saw them on a Sunday afternoon, and was so thrilled to live in a city where people fill a movie theater to see a documentary about YSL. They were both done by the same filmmaker, one mostly about his life and a survey of his career, the other showing him at work. The first was the most interesting, but the second was the most fascinating - - it was, at first, a little dull, but after a while I started to understand what was going on on a deeper level and became amused by the tiniest things. The rest of the audience seemed to have the same experience. I love movies that educate an audience that way, that create their own world and tell you how it's built. The funniest thing - - whenever a model would come into the room to show him a dress that had just been made, he would say, <<Ravissante!>>, and the woman who had built the dress would say, <<Merci, Monsieur.>> <<Ah, Georgette, c'est une rêve!>> <<Merci beaucoup, Monsieur.>>
I saw a preview when Diane Schoff and I were at a movie sometime in late ’03, and the preview had me dissolved in tears. We went to see it when it came out, and I went wild for it. I talked with my brother Howard that week:
ME: Diane and I saw *Miracle* the other night.
HOWARD: What’s that?
ME: The movie about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team.
HOWARD: Oh, I’m sorry.
ME: No, it was so good! Honestly! I think it might make my Top Five for the year!
HOWARD: Christopher, don’t even joke about that.
I was 12 when they (we?) beat the Russians, and it was the one and only moment in sports that ever excited me. Kurt Russell gives the performance of his career as the coach, and Diane and I were impressed at how well he did the Minneso-o-o-ota accent. He did it so well that we stopped noticing it after ten minutes. The thing that makes it great is that it takes this story that could have been TV Movie of the Week-esque in its sappiness, and it wrung every drop of easy sentiment out of it. There are a few overtly manipulative moments, but very few, and done with a very sure hand: in one scene, Kurt Russell pulls out the photo of the hockey team he was on as a young man, the team that went on to the Olympics without him. He looks at the photo, and just as the camera pulls in on his face and his name, a trumpet comes in over the somber strings on the score. MAJOR weepy moment!
And I didn’t realize until I bought the DVD that the actors playing the team members are real hockey players. I assumed they chose the best actors and then taught them to play hockey, and used hockey doubles for the heaviest stuff. But no - - they saw over 3,000 hockey players, who had to pass a rigorous hockey test before they got to the point where they read from the script. The filmmakers decided that it would be a better film if they chose hockey players and taught them to act than if they did it the other way around. On a special note, one of the guys in the movie, Billy Schneider, plays his father, Buzz Schneider (oh Lord, I’m totally tearing up just thinking about it).
*Kill Bill Volume 2*
I was so hopped up to see this movie, since Volume 1 had blown me away. I coached myself for months before I saw it, to not get my hopes up too high. I didn’t think anything could top the rush of Volume 1 - - as it turns out, it didn’t top it, but it did match it in a completely different way. Volume 1 is a mad ballet of slaughter, and Volume 2 goes deeper into the story and deeper into the characters. There are a couple of very satisfying action sequences (one that had me hyperventilating when I first saw it), but the movie in general has a calm tone.
In Volume 1, The Bride (Uma Thurman) has a sword made by Hattori Hanzo. Budd (Michael Madsen) has it at one point in Volume 2, and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) is interested in buying it.
ELLE: Bill tells me you had a Hanzo sword once.
ELLE: How does this one compare to that one?
BUDD: If you’re gonna compare a Hanzo sword, you compare it to every other sword ever made…that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.
I wonder if Tarantino had himself in mind when he wrote that dialogue, because that’s how I feel about him as a director. You can’t compare him to any other directors of his generation, or to very many directors of previous generations. In my opinion, he’s the most cinematic director since Kubrick - - his movies are purely movies, they use the medium to its fullest potential. And even beyond that, Tarantino has said that the action movie is the most cinematic of all the movie genres: comedies, dramas, suspense, mysteries, romance, they just as fully exist as books or plays, but since an action movie relies so heavily on how it’s shot and cut, it can only thrive in the movies. So the Kill Bill films represent not only our most cinematic director, but also him working in the most cinematic genre.
Michael Parks plays the sheriff in Volume 1 and Esteban Villejo in Volume 2, and I didn’t remember seeing him in anything before. I checked him out on imdb.com, and has anyone seen John Huston’s 1966 movie *The Bible*? This cast is a riot:
Michael Parks Adam
Ulla Bergryd Eve
Richard Harris Cain
John Huston Noah/God/The Serpent/Narrator
Stephen Boyd Nimrod
George C. Scott Abraham
Ava Gardner Sarah
Peter O’Toole The Three Angels
Lars von Trier is a complicated Danish filmmaker. I’d seen and admired his last two movies, *Breaking the Waves* and *Dancer in the Dark*. He makes movies unlike anyone else, and there’s no mistaking his talent, but I found those movies (to use a gradspeak word) problematic. In both movies, the lead character (played by Emily Watson in *B the W* and Bjork in *D in the D*) is good and sweet and childlike nearly to the point of ‘tard-ness * (see disclaimer below on my use of the word “’tard”), and over the course of the movie she is systematically degraded. I thought the prospect of Nicole Kidman in a von Trier movie was intriguing, especially with such a strong supporting cast: Harriet Andersson (from a million Ingmar Bergman movies), Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt, Chloe Sevigny, and Stellan Skarsgård.
Well, he didn’t exactly break the mold with this movie - - the main character is still systematically degraded, but she’s much stronger and fully fleshed, without any touch of the ‘tard. And the ending is much stronger than his other movies. The script is brilliant, the plot advances by inches towards its totally satisfying and inevitable climax. And without giving anything away, a pop song is used during the closing credits to the eeriest effect, far and away the most brilliant use ever of a song during closing credits (yes, even better than Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the rain” in the ending credits of *A Clockwork Orange*). I had chills from the start to the finish of the closing credits, which is definitely a first, and may never happen again.
The look of the movie is very original. It takes place in a village in the mountains somewhere in New England, and it was shot on a soundstage, with the outline of each building drawn in chalk on the floor. There are doors and chairs and desks and other bits of furniture, but no walls, so when a character is in someone’s house, you can often see the person in the neighboring house. It reminded me very much of the made-for-TV movie version of *Our Town* from 1977, with Hal Holbrook as the stage manager (I just checked amazon.com to see if it’s available, and it costs $75!), it had the same sort of representational look.
There’s a video store in Howard’s neighborhood (in San Francisco) that has Korean DVDs, and he saw *Dogville* on DVD before it was in the theaters - - not a bootleg, but a real DVD from Korea. And even more fascinating, there was a second DVD in the set that had what’s known as the Dogville Confessions: von Trier had set up a little wooden booth on the set, with a camera, and invited members of the cast to record their thoughts on making the film. Howard said it was fascinating. But the American DVD is just one disc, with no Confessions. I am very disappointed.
I’ve been an Almodóvar fan since *Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown* (I almost wrote “Nervous Breakfast*) in 1988, and have seen nearly all of his movies on the big screen since then. He turned slightly serious in 1995 with *The Flower of my Secret*, and ‘97’s *Live Flesh* also had a more somber tone. Both these movies still had their share of crazy antics, so you knew they were Almodóvar films. Then in ’99 he made what was at that point his greatest film, *All About My Mother*, a perfect mixture of camp and pathos (though he seems to find camp in pathos and pathos in camp). He won his first Oscar for this film, for Best Foreign Film. His next movie was *Talk to Her* in ’02, which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. This movie was almost completely devoid of camp, though it did have one incomparably bizarre silent film diversion. And it was very male-driven, something new for him.
His new film, *Bad Education*, is even more male-driven than *Talk to Her* - - for the first time, there isn’t a single leading female role in an Almodóvar film, quite a change from *All About My Mother*, which had hardly a leading male role (it’s wise to use the terms “male” and “female” loosely when talking about this movie). Gael Garcia Bernal, who was so marvelous in *Y Tu Mamá Tambien*, is the lead, and is extraordinary. The story of this movie is elusive, it keeps folding back into itself at unexpected moments.
It’s been very interesting watching Almodóvar’s movies evolve from farce to drama - - though not really that much has changed, he’s stayed true to his original style, it’s just been a deepening and maturing of his voice. He’s clearly one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation, and I look forward to seeing where his movies take him (and us).
*Metallica: Some Kind of Monster*
Karen Miller and I saw a preview for this when we went to some movie, and decided we would see it together when it was released. The preview presented it as a documentary about the members of Metallica going through group therapy, and it looked like a riot (a quiet riot, to be precise). We saw it, and it was so much more than that. It’s an extraordinary movie, about so many things: the creative process, negotiation, self-discovery, and even about the pitfalls in being the subject of a documentary. I was in tears a couple of times, it was such an honest movie, bursting with truth.
And even though I’m not a fan of heavy metal, I gained a real appreciation of their work. The highlight of the film was when they held auditions for their new bassist. They showed clips of the eight or nine guys playing the same wicked-fast lick in one of their best-known songs. They would show the guy playing, and in the corner of the screen they printed his name and the bands he’s played with. The guy they hired was without a doubt the best of the bunch. It’s not that his playing was so much better, it’s that he seemed so unflappable, and so at ease with the groove of the group.
You know how Hollywood has had a case of sequel-itis for the last fifteen years - - not a summer can go by without at least two blockbuster sequels, never as good as the original. I’ve been saying for years that if there was ever a movie in need of a sequel, it’s *Before Sunrise*, a charming low-key romance from 1995 about an two young people, an American guy (Ethan Hawke) and a French gal (Julie Delpy) meeting on a train going to Paris. They decide to get off in Vienna and spend the day together. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s one of the most effortless romance movies ever, and I always wondered what happened with the two of them.
I was at the Angelika (an art house movie theater) this summer and right there, with their Coming Soon posters, was a poster for *Before Sunset*, with a photo of Hawke and Delpy looking longingly at each other. I nearly jumped up and down. Of course I went to see it (at Sunshine Cinemas, another art house movie theater) and was completely charmed. It has the same offhand sweetness as the first movie - - I think a big part of the flavor of the second movie comes from the script being somewhat improvised by the two actors. I imagine they decided with the writer/director Richard Linklater (who did *Slacker*, *Dazed and Confused*, and 2001’s Top Five pick *Tape*) what they would talk about, and then filmed it. I’m looking forward to a two-disc DVD of both movies, maybe a three-disc, with lots of bonus features?
* * *
Best Cameo, Female
A tie: Catherine Deneuve in one of those YSL movies. He’s been designing clothes for her for years, way back to *Belle de jour* in 1967 (he made her a glorious red wool overcoat in that movie). The movie opened with her being fitted for a brown leather suit, very fitted, very chic. One of the older YSL employees, an adorable French matron, greeted Deneuve warmly with four pecks on the cheeks and they got involved in a very involved conversation about their chickens and other fowl.
Best Cameo, Male
Many actors in *Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy*. I don’t want to spoil the surprise by telling you who they are, but I will say that Ben Stiller is particularly hilarious.
Remembrance of Movies Past
*Scenes from a Marriage*, Ingmar Bergman, 1973
I saw this movie about 10 years ago, and was amazed and frightened by it. It’s a harrowing film, about a married couple (played by Bergman favorites Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson) who start off happy, become discontented, have a gruesome split, and rekindle after their separation, with disastrous results. The most impressive thing about the movie was the ending, which I believe is one of the most perfect and powerful movie endings ever.
Film Forum (you read about them above) had a Bergman series this summer, played about 20 of his movies over the course of a month. I think New York must have been the only city in the world where you had a choice between seeing *Spider-Man 2* or Bergman’s *Through a Glass Darkly*. So one night (Thursday, June 3, to be precise) they showed *Scenes from a Marriage* - - but not the version I had seen. I had seen the 168-minute movie version. They showed the full MINISERIES, made for Swedish television. Six 50-minute episodes. Thankfully they had two intermissions, or we all would have been insane and very sore. This amazing movie became even more amazing. And most startling of all, that perfect, powerful ending wasn’t the ending at all! I had everything back in my bag (bottle of water, candy wrappers), and there was a whole other episode! Ya coulda knocked me ovah with a feathah! I have to say the movie ending is better, but it was very interesting to see what happened to the characters in the final episode. I’m so thrilled to see that the full miniseries version is available on DVD, because I am buying it.
Movie That Needs To Be Made
Meryl Streep in a movie about Wallis Simpson, aka the Duchess of Windsor. Many of you know that I have a thing for the Duchess, and am working on a one-woman opera about her, starring Kathy the Mezzo. If you don’t know who she is, here’s a brief sketch - - she was an American woman from Baltimore who became the lover of the Edward, the Prince of Wales, in the 30s. It was a huge scandal because she was divorced and married to a second husband. And the unthinkable happened: Edward’s father died, and he was King for less than a year when he abdicated the throne (do I hear a gasp?) so he could marry her (of course she had to divorce her husband first). Queen Elizabeth is Edward’s niece, and wouldn’t have been likely to even touch the throne if he hadn’t abdicated. Wallis was a fascinating woman, marvelously conflicted and complicated, and Streep, with the right makeup and hairstyle, could be made to look exactly like her. The only men I can come up with to play Edward are Ralph Fiennes (too young) and Peter O’Toole (too old). Any ideas? He must be blond, or at least look good as a blond. Dame Maggie Smith would play Queen Mary - - I would so love to hear her say to the Prime Minister, “Well, Mr. Baldwin, this is a fine kettle of fish.”
*Rumor Has It*, dir by Rob Reiner, with Jennifer Aniston, Mark Ruffalo, Shirley MacLaine, and Kevin Costner. To quote the summary from imdb, “Jennifer Aniston plays a woman who learns that her family was the inspiration for the book and film "The Graduate" -- and that she just might be the offspring of the well-documented event.
*Che*: dir by Steven Soderbergh, starring Benicio del Toro, Javier Bardem, Benjamin Bratt, and Franka Potente.
*Therese Raquin*: starring Franka Potente, Joseph Fiennes, and the inevitable Glenn Close as the scary diva mother.
*Megalopolis*: dir by Francis Ford Coppola, last directed movie is *The Rainmaker*, 1997.
*Bewitched*: dir by Nora Ephron, w/Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, and Shirley Maclaine (also Michael Caine, Kristin Chenoweth). I think Reese Witherspoon, Jim Carrey, and Kathleen Turner would have been better, but they get kudos for casting Joan Plowright as Aunt Clara and Amy Sedaris as Gladys Kravitz.
*Elizabethtown*: written/dir by Cameron Crowe, w/Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, and Alec Baldwin.
NOT Eagerly Anticipated:
*Untitled Marlene Dietrich Project*, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, expected for 2006. Here’s the email I wrote to Scott Seyforth in May 2003, when I read in the NY Times that the movie got the green light:
“Barfing will now oh-curr. Louis Malle was in pre-production for a Dietrich movie starring Uma Schmuma, but then he died - - that would have been GREAT. I can't see Paltrow as Dietrich. She's too sweet, too dewy, too American, not at all decadent and smoldering. The woman named her child Apple, that alone should bar her from this film. I think Nicole Kidman would have been a good choice, or Scarlett Johansson, or how about Patricia Clarkson? SO many better choices.”
Follow-up to Last Year’s Eagerly Anticipated
*Kill Bill, Volume 2*
*The Passion of the Christ*
I saw this within a week of its release, and read every online newspaper article I could find - - I’m big on controversy, as you know. The movie is clearly the movie Gibson wanted to make, and it’s meant a lot to thousands and thousands of people who have seen it, but in my opinion, it went too far. I am not bothered by violence in movies - - I’ve now seen the *Kill Bill* movies over ten times each, and Vol. 1 was, to quote the Village Voice, “the most violent American film ever made.” Those movies have a cartoonish violence, which I think is fun. Other movies, like *Schindler’s List*, *The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover*, and *Once Were Warriors*, have a disturbing violence, which (for me) is satisfying and effective, but not fun. The violence of *The Passion of the Christ* is not fun or satisfying - - it is, for some people, effective, but not for me. The one word I would use to describe it is gross. It was just gross. Another word I heard bandied about on this subject is “fetishistic”, and there is something unsavory and perverse about the degree to which Gibson has Christ being tortured. Some medical expert said that no one could live through all of that, and I say no one could remain conscious.
Gibson’s original vision of the film was to release it without subtitles (the dialogue is in Latin and Aramaic), and I wonder if I would have gotten more out of it in that format. It would have turned it into a sort of silent movie, which might have been more effective. And the changes in language style were jarring - - you’d go from Christ speaking in King David-ese to a Roman guard saying, “Hey, is this the guy? Come on, let’s get him!”
And one more gripe - - Gibson got a lot of bad press for being anti-Semitic, and his defense is that it’s the Jews who were largely responsible for his torture and crucifixion, because he was considered dangerous. There’s a scene in the movie when Pilate and his wife experience remorse over what they’ve done - - why couldn’t Gibson have had a similar behind-the-scenes scene where you see the Jews in charge talking about Jesus as a threat to their power? This would support his point, which isn’t made clear in the movie.
Of course I went to see the movie because of the controversy, but the one element that made it worthwhile was the performance of Maia Morgenstern as Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her performance was incredibly moving, in a profound sense of drama that was missing from the rest of the movie. She was the emotional center of the movie, and I hope she’ll be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (she’s not up for a Golden Globe, the movie didn’t get any nominations).
*The Stepford Wives*
I liked it, but it wasn’t that great. It definitely wasn’t as good as it could have been. Maybe I need to reread the book, but my memory of the book is that the women are basically lobotomized and re-programmed to be compliant. In both this movie and the 1975 movie, the women are killed and replaced by robots, which I find much less disturbing. The performances were OK and the production design was fantastic. On a side note, what ever happened to Glenn Close? Ten years ago she was seen as an equal to Meryl Streep, but she’s gotten stuck in a steady diet of scary diva roles lately (*101 Dalmations*, *102 Dalmations*, *Sunset Boulevard*, *The Lion in Winter*, and this). She needs to break out of this stereotype and do something different.
Jere and I have a date to see this, probably sometime in January.
I wasn’t wild about it, it wasn’t nearly as good as the first one. The NY Times critic was crazy for it, said it was the best comic book movie ever made. I appreciate that they went more deeply into the characters, but I didn’t think it was very satisfying.
New Category: Most Deserving of a Comeback
Someday I might have a Most Deserving of Being Tarantino’d category, because Tarantino is the master of the comeback role, having done them for John Travolta (*Pulp Fiction*), Pam Grier, Robert Forster (*Jackie Brown*), and David Carradine (*Kill Bill*). I think Meg Ryan will be ripe for a Tarantinoing in five to ten years. Until then, I think the next step for her career should be a failed TV series, a la Better Midler, Geena Davis, and so many others.
But to get back to Most Deserving of a Comeback, apart from Tarantino. I choose Angela Bassett for this award. She proved in *What’s Love Got To Do With It?* that she’s an actress of great power and range. She proved in her small role in *Contact* that she can do a good job in a small role that isn’t typically seen as an African-American actress’s role. And she’s proven over and over that she can be compelling in movies geared for an African-American audience (*Waiting to Exhale*, *How Stella Got Her Groove Back*). I’d like to see her getting more work in projects of a higher profile. The world of opera has a long way to go before it achieves true equality for people of every color, race, and body type, but they’ve had color-blind casting for nearly 40 years now. Hollywood has a long ways to go. Why couldn’t Angela Bassett have played the following roles:
Jennifer Lopez’s role in *Out of Sight*
Julianne Moore’s role in *Magnolia*
Frances MacDormand’s role in *Wonder Boys*
Catherine Anne Moss’s role in *Memento*
Jane Alexander’s or Kathy Baker’s roles in *The Cider House Rules*
* Disclaimer on my use of the word ‘tard - - it is indeed an appropriation of the child slang ree-tard. I use it most often in a cinematic context, to describe a non-impaired or non-disabled actor playing a character who is somehow impaired or disabled. These roles are ripe for Oscars and Oscar noms. The first win that I know of is Jane Wyman playing a deaf girl in *Johnny Belinda*. Please realize that Marlee Matlin, a deaf woman playing a deaf woman in *Children of a Lesser God*, is not seen as a ‘tard, since she is actually deaf. There has to be some kind of heightened technical gimmickry involved. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes these are highly skilled and subtle performances, but they’re still ‘tards.
One of the great gaffes of ‘tard history was one night in 1988 when Helen Hayes was on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson asked her about what movies she had seen, and she said she’d seen *Rain Man*, and thought that Tom Cruise should have been nominated for an Oscar instead of Dustin Hoffman, because (and this is a direct quote), “anyone can play a ree-tard.” There was an audible gasp from the audience, and I think Johnny quickly asked her about her touring one-woman show about Mary Queen of Scots (or was it Queen Victoria?).
2001 was the most recent Year of the ‘Tard, with Russell Crowe nominated for *A Beautiful Mind* and Sean Penn for *I Am Sam* (aka *A Beautiful ‘Tard* and *I Am ‘Tard*). I was sure that South Park would have a production number called “Oscar Loves a ‘Tard”. Denzel Washington trumped both their ‘tards and won for *Training Day*. 1996 was the Year With Highest ‘Tard Content, with four ‘tard nominations - - out of twenty total nominations, that’s 20% ‘tard.