Friday, August 19, 2011

In Praise of 1986: a re-evaluation of my least beloved decade of film.

It's officially the beginning of late summer. It's Friday. And despite my all-consuming passion for movies, I don't want to see anything new. It has not always been this way. Once upon a time, it seemed every weekend of the summer offered some new pleasures, whether they were just a good time or something more.

One summer in particular still resonates with me. Without really thinking closely about it until now it appears to me that 1986 was a watershed year for the movies. And for me, for the rest of my days, the summer of 1986 will always be the definitive summer movie season.

I turned 15 that summer. Part of why this summer has a special place in my memory can be attributed to my proclivity at the time for taping certain clips from TV on my relatively new VCR. I filled up countless tapes with music videos from Friday Night Videos on NBC (we didn't get MTV until 1989) and other music video shows of the day. In May of 1986, I taped Entertainment Tonight's summer movie preview, a montage of scenes from coming attractions. I watched it so many times that most of it is still fresh in my mind. So unlike most summers, there's a highlight reel for that summer playing fresh in my head even now.

I have a personal connection to 1986 for reasons only peripheral to the cinema (we'll come back to that later), but I think the first thing to be said about 1986 is that it's part of a decade I have for some time considered the nadir of cinema.

Shocking, I know. But the 80's for me were the decade without a great movement, the decade that seemed to surrender all the ground gained in the pre-Star Wars 70's, the fallow period between the Second Golden Age and the Indie Explosion of the 90's. Were there great 80's films? Of course. But compared to the 60's or 70's, I felt the Reagan Era was left wanting.

Lately I've noticed that filmmakers (some my age, some of Gen-Y) have begun to proudly proclaim their love for 80's American film, even in such august venues as Elvis Mitchell's The Treatment. It makes sense that the current crop of filmmakers and executives would look to the 80's, a period where serving the audience came first and efficient entertainment supplanted artsy ambiguity. That paradigm shift is most dramatic in the career of David Gordon Green, who ten years ago wowed critics with his Malickian 70's influenced freshman and sophomore efforts. Now he's made a series of unabashedly 80's style comedies, his latest a veritable remake of 1987's Adventure's In Babysitting.

The Eighties are in, The Seventies are, for the most part, out. 

But what's so special about 1986? I think it's because 1986 is that rare year when both popular films and critical darlings flourished equally. In '86, there were plenty of crowd-pleasers and the year also delivered some arthouse classics that could be spoken in my film classes without embarrassment even in the 90's when I was in film school. In 1986, whether you liked goofy comedy, action, challenging drama or art cinema, you got it all.

In the first four months alone, we got Hannah & Her Sisters, Lucas, At Close Range, Salvador, Pretty in Pink, and even The Hitcher. On May 16th, the year's number one film was released. It was called Top Gun, and in many ways it is the apotheosis of the Simpson/Bruckheimer style that has since conquered the summer. This is significant. It marks '86 as a turning point, the end of the post-Star Wars era, the beginning of Bruckheimer's more aggressive brand of audience service. Soon the spawn of Top Gun would proliferate and kill off anything that isn't already carrying its particular strain of virus. But in 1986, it was just one part of a diverse population.

The same month Top Gun came out, Roland Joffe's The Mission (that touchstone of middlebrow quality, with a soundtrack that in many ways outlived the film) was released. One month, two films. One a bellweather of things to come, one instantly a relic of another era.

Top Gun wasn't the only monster hit of the year. The end of the summer would bring Crocodile Dundee. If those bookends depress you, consider what came between- June: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Mona Lisa, Back To School; July:  Aliens, Big Trouble in Little China, Under The Cherry Moon; August: The Fly, Howard The Duck (I know it's bad, but it has to be mentioned), She's Gotta Have It, Stand By Me. August also brought a small animated feature called Transformers: The Movie. It was not a box office champ, but its presence undeniably portends things to come.

[Quick aside: Siskel & Ebert also debuted in 1986, which clearly marked a change in how movies were perceived. I leave it to you whether "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down" helped the medium, harmed it or neither.]

Because film seasons actually meant something once, the fall and Christmas season brought even more lasting favorites: Down By Law, The Mosquito Coast, Blue Velvet, Captain Eo, True Stories (yes youngsters, Warner Bros. once distributed a film by the Talking Heads guy), Three Amigos, Star Trek IV, Something Wild, Sid & Nancy, River's Edge, and the Oscar winner Platoon. 

There are other films I've failed to list that may be a favorite of yours. And I don't pretend that all of the above are masterpieces. But they do reflect a period when filmmakers could make quirky challenging films, get distribution from majors and be seen on the big screen (In at least limited release). And perhaps, popular films could deliver their payload without assaulting the senses or the intelligence of its audience.

There are other, more obvious great years in cinema; 1974 immediately comes to mind. But right now, as I look at another uninspired weekend of studio fundraising barely disguised as cinema, I long for 1986 more because it is just beyond our fingertips. We'll never get back to 1974, we've devolved too far as a culture, but 1986 seems like a reachable goal, if only our filmmakers, and audiences, demanded better.

Two more points: in early 1987, the Academy Award winner for Best Live Action Short was Chuck Workman's stirring tribute to American cinema Precious Images. Set to a rousing pastiche of orchestral music, it splices together the most indelible moments, lines, and images of popular cinema. Is it significant that this short was made in '86? It seems so to me but not in a way I can intellectualize. It was commissioned by the Director's Guild of America on the occasion of its 75th anniversary. I'm sure they had no intention of making it as a monument to a peak cinema would never quite achieve again, but I fear that is precisely how it will come to be seen. It's hard not to agree that precious little since then has achieved the status of the films in that montage (it was recut in 1996 to include more recent films, hardly necessary).

Lastly, a confession. I have a unique emotional attachment to this summer, not just because it was the beginning of my taste changing to more sophisticated fare, but also because it was the last summer with my father, who died by his own hand at 39 the following February.  I inherited my obsession with films from him, and in fact this was the summer we saw our last films together (he loved Top Gun, no lover of subtitled films was he). This summer was the end of an era for me, by the time summer came again I was in many ways another person. So you'll have to forgive me if I've conflated the way 1986 signaled the end of one chapter for me and how perhaps it signaled the end of something in the medium I've loved all my life.

The Eighties are king now. All the hand-wringing and love of Cassavetes can't change that. So if we must live under their yoke again, perhaps filmmakers can look more carefully at the year and learn how to pull off what in 1986 seemed so easy. Raunchy teen comedies, macho action and slasher pics ruled the decade, but middle ground still existed for people who wanted more from the movies. As I dream of a better crop of films, I now dream of getting back to middle ground. The high ground is gone for good.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Top 25 Films of 2010*

*Originally published on 1/1/11 on another site.

Peter Greenaway posits that the remote control killed the cinema. If that’s true, iTunes and Video On Demand are finishing the job. I don’t mean that to sound bitter, the medium is changing.  But having everything at your fingertips and available through your iPad is going to change the way films are made and consumed forever.

The year’s big story may ultimately be the death of the modern movie star. Even Will Smith, the last actual movie star, sat ’10 out. Big stars are no a guarantee on box office returns. And bigger than that, the two films that really captured the imagination of the audience were Avatar (a 2009 release but it made most of its money in 2010) and Inception, both of which were original films (non-remake, non-sequel). This sent a clear message to the studios that we can all rejoice over even if Cameron and Nolan’s films weren’t your favorite.

But of course, the studios will ignore the audience’s clear reference for new stories and continue to give us remakes and films based on board games in 2011. They have had to accept that the story is now more important to the audience than stars.  And that may in the end be the ray of hope delivered by 2010.

1. Carlos – France – Olivier Assayas
2. The Tillman Story – USA – Amir Bar-Lev
3. Poetry – S. Korea – Lee Chang-dong
4. I Am Love – Italy – Luca Guagadino
5. Mesrine (Killer Instinct & Public Enemy No. 1) – France –Jean–Francois Richet
6. Animal Kingdom – Australia – David Michod
7. Night Catches Us – USA – Tanya Hamilton
8. Exit Through The Gift Shop – UK - Banksy
9. The Social Network – USA – David Fincher
10. How To Train Your Dragon – USA - Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders
11. True Grit – USA – Joel & Ethan Coen
12. A Prophet – France – Jacques Audiard
13. Toy Story 3 – USA – Lee Unkrich
14. Vincere – Italy – Marco Bellocchio
15. Another Year – UK – Mike Leigh
16. Inception – USA – Christopher Nolan
17. The Other Guys – USA – Adam McKay
18. The Kids Are All Right – USA – Lisa Cholodenko
19. The Fighter – USA – David O. Russell
20. Please Give – USA – Nicole Holofcener
21. Women Without Men – Iran - Shoja Azari & Shirin Neshat
22. Fish Tank – UK – Andrea Arnold
23. Soul Kitchen – Germany – Fatih Akin
24. The Ghost Writer – UK/France – Roman Polanski
25. Agora – Spain – Alejandro Amenabar

Special Award: Enter The Void – I didn’t love Gaspar Noe’s film but he undeniably did something unique and bold that stayed with me. Noe may annoy you, but you gotta respect what he’s done with his three films. Dont’cha?

Big Damn Genius Award – RED Camera: this HD camera can now do virtually anything that 35mm film can. Several times I saw films last year that Id have sworn were on film and was amazed to see that they were shot on this format.

Runner-up- Marky Mark Wahlberg: as an actor and an executive producer he’s becoming one of the most reliable brands in Hollywood.

Steel Drum Award (for that which I’d like to see sealed in a steel drum and thrown into the deepest part of the ocean)– the Iranian Government: Among its myriad abuses, the current regime has committed a crime against cinema by sentencing Jafar Panahi to six years in prison and a 20 year ban on filmmaking. Disgusting.

Runner-up: M. Night Shyamalan

2nd Runner-up: 3D

The Top 50 Film's of the 2000's*

*The following was originally published on 5/28/2010, on another social networking site.

The first decade of the 21st Century has been rough with the cinematic medium. The century has announced very clearly that it belongs to another medium: the video game. You know the stats, games are selling in ways that make studios envious.

And the 2000’s are also the decade when television outstripped the cinema. The best episodes of The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men rival anything at Cannes or Sundance. It seems that a paradigm shift has occurred. TV was once the domain of family and film was where more adult stories were told, but that has finally been reversed.

Technology has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, but the paucity of great films this these technological breakthroughs has yielded is very telling. Digital Video and 24p Hi-Def seemed to be the way of the future in 1999. Many directors experimented with these formats. Now it seems that with a few exceptions (Michael Mann, David Lynch), DV has failed to really payoff creatively or launch any movements. In other words, this is a decade when anyone, even this filmmaker, could make a feature-length movie. That makes the paltry product seen since 2000 all the more depressing.

On the international scene, we lost many of our last remaining titans in this decade. The filmmakers that made being a cinephile chic in the late 60’s & 70’s have all but disappeared. We also saw the rise of Israel, South Korea, Romania, Nigeria, Thailand, the Philippines, & most recently South America on the festival circuit. Iran & Taiwan, so vibrant in the 1990’s, seemed to have lost their respective ways. France continues to produce important films and keep its film industry viable. A film without any White characters won the Academy Award for Best Picture. A new kind of art film, which I call Critic-Bait Cinema, emerges in which nothing much happens in long takes.

And despite all of our losses, the cinema gained its first centenarian filmmaker in the 2000’s.

And then there was “The Man Who Couldn’t…” My first feature was made in the middle of the decade for less than $10,000. I don’t bring this up to promote it, but to say that in this decade, I changed as a cinephile, as a filmgoer. Making a feature was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It has changed me as a filmmaker and as an artist. It also means that from now on, I will always view features (especially those by young, or more pointedly, younger) filmmakers with a certain defensive competitiveness. Making a feature probably made me a more forgiving film-goer, but it also made me a protective parent of a child loved by a few, but ignored by the many. So let that serve as an honest declaration of the baggage I tote as a cinephile.

With all our disclaimers out of the way, let’s take a look at the best that “The Noughties,” as the Brits call it, offered up.

1. INLAND EMPIRE – 2006 – USA – David Lynch
2. Yi Yi (A One & A Two…) – 2000 – Taiwan – Edward Yang
3. The Royal Tenenbaums – 2001 – USA – Wes Anderson
4. Silent Light – 2007 – Mexico – Carlos Reygadas
5. George Washington – 2000 – USA – David Gordon Green
6. Secret Sunshine – 2007 – S. Korea – Lee Chang-dong
7. Ghost World – 2001 – USA – Terry Zwigoff
8. All About Lily Chou-Chou – 2001 – Japan – Shunji Iwai
9. Lilya 4-Ever – 2002 – Sweden – Lukas Moodysson
10. 25th Hour – 2002 – USA – Spike Lee

Why “Inland Empire?” It is not the most entertaining film of the decade. It is not a film that I pop in the DVD player at any given moment and enjoy like a visit from an old friend. But it is a towering work, a singular artistic vision of purity rarely seen in the cinema (Laura Dern’s performance is arguably the decade’s best turn by an actress, it must be said). It is also an example of what could be produced only in this decade (thanks to advances in consumer hardware & software), and a reminder of how few artists of Lynch’s caliber took up the challenge given by new technology. The top 3 films are all outstanding and could be rearranged easily. But of the three, only Lynch’s film is uniquely a product of this moment, not a project with roots in the previous decade like Yang’s or consciously timeless like Anderson’s.

11. Synecdoche, New York – 2008 – USA – Charlie Kaufman
12. I’m Not There – 2007 – USA – Todd Haynes
13. Gangster No. 1 – 2000 – UK – Paul McGuigan
14. The Circle – 2000 – Iran – Jafar Panahi
15. Beau Travail – 2000 – France – Claire Denis
16. The New World – 2005 – USA – Terrence Malick
17. The Dark Knight – 2008 – USA – Christopher Nolan
18. Los Angeles Plays Itself – 2003 – USA – Thom Anderson
19. The Corporation – 2003 – Canada – Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott
20. A.I. Artificial Intelligence – 2001 – USA – Steven Spielberg

21. Code 46 – 2003 – UK – Michael Winterbottom
22. Shortbus – 2006 – USA – John Cameron Mitchell
23. Donnie Darko – 2001 – USA – Richard Kelly
24. Kill Bill (Volume 1) – 2003 – USA – Quentin Tarantino
25. L’Emploi du Temps (Time Out) – 2001 – France – Laurent Cantet
26. Surfwise - 2008 – USA – Doug Pray
27. Street Fight - 2005 – USA – Marshall Curry
28. Mystic River – 2003 – USA – Clint Eastwood
29. The Squid & the Whale – 2005 - USA – Noah Baumbach
30. La Ville Est Tranquille – 2000 – France – Robert Guédiguian

31. Grizzly Man – 2005 – USA – Werner Herzog
32. The Gleaners & I – 2000 – France – Agnes Varda
33. The Incredibles – 2004 – USA - Brad Bird
34. Manderlay – 2005 – Denmark – Lars Von Trier
35. Million Dollar Baby – 2004 – USA – Clint Eastwood
36. Before Sunset – 2004 – USA – Richard Linklater
37. Knocked Up – 2007 – USA – Judd Apatow
38. Ocean’s 11 – 2001 – USA – Steven Soderbergh
39. The Filth & The Fury – 2000 – UK – Julien Temple
40. Brokeback Mountain – 2005 – USA – Ang Lee

41. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy – 2004 – USA – Adam McKay
42. A History of Violence – 2005 – USA – David Cronenberg
43. Peppermint Candy – 2000 – S. Korea – Lee Chang-dong
44. Nobody Knows – 2004 – Japan – Hirokazu Kore-eda
45. The Departed – 2006 – USA – Martin Scorsese
46. Children of Men – 2006 – UK – Alfonso Cuarón
47. Sicko – 2007 – USA – Michael Moore
48. Pulse – 2001 – Japan – Kiyoshi Kurosawa
49. Zodiac – 2007 – USA – David Fincher
50. Mooladé – 2004 – Senegal – Ousmane Sembene

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Evolution Horror: What Apes and Zombies have in common.

I wish the title were Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It's a small criticism for the most satisfying summer film in recent memory. For one, "dawn" is more reflective of the events of the film, than Rise of the Planet of the Apes. For another, "dawn" would have given me a certain intertextual thrill. For in my mind, the Apes Saga has always been a close cousin to George A. Romero's Dead Cycle, and even if they didn't choose the word "dawn" in order to make that kinship explicit, the new film is in a few ways the inevitable love child of the two series.

Both series started in 1968. There are obvious huge differences. Planet of the Apes was a studio picture with an A-List star and a director one film away from an Oscar. Night of the Living Dead was a no-budget cheapie (indie before the word existed) shot without stars of any kind. Both films used genre and metaphor in gripping ways, and needless to say they are both a product of turbulent, searching times.

The Apes Saga touched on the politics of the day, made social commentary, and posed big questions in none-too-subtle ways about the Nature of Man. The Dead Cycle did all the same things but with a sly wit and Romero's unabashedly counterculture ethos in every frame. The Apes lacked a single master (although Paul Dehn, with writing and/or story credits on all the four sequels comes close) in the way that the Dead Cycle has had in Romero.

Beyond those differences, the apes and the zombies serve almost identical functions as metaphors: they are a mirror reflection of us, who we REALLY are underneath it all, and perhaps in some small way they are better than us, or what we have become. In zombie terms this is the domain of Romero alone. Only he, the father of the sub-genre, casts a sympathetic eye towards the zombies, never letting us forget that they are us. By the third film Romero gets us to empathize with them, and he never lets us forget their humanity for the rest of the series.

The filmmakers of the Apes Cycle similarly remind us constantly that our simian counterparts are more than justified in feeling superior to us, and in the fourth installment, man's fascistic oppression and enslavement of apes makes the coming bloodbath feel inevitable and warranted.

Hubris, that favored flaw of the Greeks, is also the tragic flaw of both series. It leads to our destruction as a society, and it constantly has the characters asking how these creatures could ever usurp mankind. It's usually while wondering that that a character is either killed by gorillas or eaten alive.

And then there's race. It has always haunted both films, in the way that we treat these fantastic others. And in both series there typically is an African-American male character who holds a prominent role even if he's not the hero. Romero always took care to have a black hero in the mix, and in his fourth film he chose to make the zombie the black hero (interesting that in both of the series fourth episodes Land of the Dead and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes there is a revolt led by a messianic figure) and the equivalent to Caesar in the Apes Saga.

As for the Apes films, there are key supporting roles filled by black male actors in the first two films (Taylor's science officer in the first, the African-American member of the the subterranean mutants in the second). While the third film breaks this trend (Montalban fills the void in the third film I suppose), the fourth and fifth more than make up for it. Though a member of the fascist government, MacDonald (Hari  Rhodes) is the conscience of the establishment. In case you were forgetting for one second that this society had engaged in slavery before the Apes, MacDonald will remind you.

Another MacDonald character serves as Caesar's right hand man during Battle for the Planet of the Apes. That film is set in a post-apocalyptic world where Ape has yet to dominate Man and drive him into the wilderness, and in many ways this film gives voice to the frightened thoughts many no doubt had about the tenuousness of integration and the unease of living side-by-side with a race that has every reason to hate you. That we know this experiment with integration is doomed says a lot about the pessimism of the early 1970's.

And that brings us to Rise of the Planet of the Apes which I see as a synthesis of the Ape films and the zombie movies. In many respects, the new film follows the pattern of the zombie outbreak film more closely than any of the Apes Saga. Though it lacks the biting social commentary of Romero (or even the earlier Apes films) it does touch on questions of scientific ethics, not unlike Day of the Dead.

Steven Jacobs, played by Nigerian-British actor David Oyelowo, is the corporate exec who is the putative villain in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Please note that he shares a last name with Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of the original Apes Saga through his APJAC Productions. Much will be made of the fact that the black character in the new film is not sympathetic, represents late capitalism itself and everything that Caesar must overthrow. The Obama connection is obvious and there for you to take how you will. Those who see the new film may not get the full implications of Jacobs' race without seeing the films that came before.

The new film even ends with a patient zero and an outbreak, just like a zombie film. Few films have signaled more loudly that sequels will follow than this one. I will gladly watch to see how the Apes Saga is re-imagined and how strong the parallel to Romero's similarly apocalyptic vision remains.