The Top Ten Films (Maudit) of the 90s.

The 90s. The last era about which the phrase "they don't make 'em like they used to" can plausibly be used. Because, and many people will blame/thank digital replacing or at least competing with celluloid, the medium has changed storytelling. In microcosm, look at Jonathan English's film Ironclad. Here are some characters, here are their weapons, here's the king they oppose, here's a castle, they will defend it and die one at a time, one of them lives, the end. Efficiency? Maybe. It's easy to be efficient when you hire actors so good they're practically stock types and forget character development. Entertaining? Sure, yeah. I don't regret watching it, only that it made me see without doubt that the rules have changed. Ten years ago, Ironclad wouldn't have necessarily been a better film, just one that left a stronger imprint in its goodness or badness; Highlander or First Knight leave no room for meh's. They're fucking awful or you watch them with your friends in rotation next to Point Break and Lost Boys. With film there is a weight to every close-up and the best directors of the era knew it. Robert Redford may have lost his flair for suspense, but he still understands the weight of a shot and how to pace, which is why I didn't hate The Conspirator as much as everyone else did. Not a great movie, but it has the sturdiness of a man who learned the craft several generation changes ago. Gregg Araki still struggles with these very basic concepts; Larry Clark has actually gotten better because he had no idea about how to use film for anything other than image capture; digital's ease with light has made him a more discerning director of images. Gaspar Noe, whatever his faults, I think is still probably capable of weight if he'd slow his fucking camera down a minute. To combat the inherent drop in depth, Leos Carax has actually rooted his usually flight-prone steadicam to focus more on the faces of his protagonists, rather than following them as they float through space or run through the streets like wild animals; he's deliberate on digital in a way he only ever hinted at in his best moments on film. And no, it is not randomly that I use these names. For when the true effect of the close-up diminished by a thinness of the image so goes the power of film to really shock.

Take The Human Centipede, please. How can something that looks less substantial than a lot of senior thesis films have any power to shock or disgust, except by mere suggestion alone. Would I care to undergo the surgery myself? No. Is watching it worth the suggestion? No, because it fails to live up to its outlandish premise in execution and leaves you nothing to think about when the filth's been shed. The only thing I can think of with less formal value or narrative energy is a Jim Wynorski/Roger Corman made-for-syfy cheapie or possibly a straight-to-obscurity Geno Mcgahee horror film. I'd wager good money that the reason Ken Russell's The Devils and the few other films he produced that decade were so truly hated was because Russell's style had remained intact from his productions of The Music Lovers, The Boyfriend and Women In Love. Not only were audiences who wanted him to do justice to classic novels with modern implications disappointed by his move away from romance and into psychedelic torture and scalpel-sharp satire, they were tricked by his images, which had the same texture and moved in the same fleet way as his earlier crowd-pleasers. A fantastic rug-pull from a man who made rug-pulling his life's work. Ditto Carax, whose audiences wanted something with the same joyous air, and were instead rewarded with an accurate representation of what their expectations had done to his psyche. He used their expectations against them and brought them further into his mind than they would have ever asked to go. This was at once the definition of cinema, and so much more.

And now, the inspiration for this piece - The AV Club and Slant firing off dueling best of the 90s lists and Peter Labuza in Film Comment offering his take on the film maudit (for those who don't know the handshake, that means 'cursed film'), using Dennis Lim and Criterion's recent appreciations and restorations, respectively, of Heaven's Gate. I disagree with both of the lists strongly, because for the sake of doing the same that some of our most heralded auteurs do - throwing out the rule book for the sake of it - place the work of Paul Verhoeven higher than people who truly mastered the form to do something more than fuck with you for an hour and a half. I'm not saying Verhoeven isn't capable of great art (Black Book is really fantastic and his best film in my mind is the staggeringly awesome Flesh + Blood) but I resent anyone who tells me that Starship Troopers is a better film than Ed Wood. Subjectively speaking - they're wrong. Objectively speaking - give me a fucking break. Being in on a joke the filmmakers didn't fully comprehend doesn't make the film better, it just makes you on its wavelength, at best. If the director of that bullshit Red Dawn remake had come out and said "I'm a marxist and this is a joke," the movie wouldn't suddenly become a fucking masterpiece. But then, I suppose, that's what critics are here for. To exhume, to re-evaluate, to push their personal films above the accepted canon. Labuza points out that Andrew Sarris probably took greater pride in telling people how much he loved Lola Montès because of how poorly it had fared with critics upon its initial release. And time has vindicated both Sarris and Lola. It's a masterpiece in more than one set of eyes with a Criterion release to go with its new status, just like Heaven's Gate. And for the record I agree. Lola Montès is, to me, Ophuls' most beautiful and heartbreaking movie, and the man made more than a few beautiful, heartbreaking movies.

Which brings me to my real question, and it's nagged at me for months now. There are more film critics today than there ever have been (don't ask to see my research on this bullshit claim) which means that the odds that a film, no matter how wrongheaded, will be Universally panned are impossibly small. I grew up hating people like Paul W.S. Anderson, Michael Bay, Tony Scott and Dennis Dugan and largely the critical establishment had my back, but thanks to the internet, every one of these guys has a champion in 

'print'. In consulting reviews for Pola X from its turn-of-the-century release date, the overwhelming consensus is "it's a failure, but still worth watching." So, my question is, why? Why does a film that does not subscribe to narrative logic as we typically understand it (and film critics ought to have a broader understanding these days), have to be called a failure? Labuza cites Margaret as a film that was rescued from Maudit status in a matter of months. Of the six critics who saw it (which made up something like 34% of its first-run audience) four of them liked it enough to recommend it. The other two found it not terrible but too broad, which they failed to realize was the point. Soon the six became twelve, and so on and so on and now it's very nearly canonized. So, to quote Labuza, "One might wonder if there are even bad movies anymore..." The Kafka-esque truth is almost definitely no. I have a problem with tastemakers martyring Tony Scott, who made one masterpiece and a few good movies besides (not great, merely good) movies in a thirty year career, and lauding Brian De Palma who never once made a good film, while Margaret and Pola X have trouble getting their due because a handful of critics and distributors don't have faith in them. Heaven's Gate was blamed for the Iranian Hostage Crisis in its day; it still has its detractors, but at least now its viewed outside of the context of the curbstomping it received back when. In the age of the internet, as Labuza points out, distributors will have to try very hard to create circumstances where a film needs rescuing and can't get it. Thank god because I'm tired of reading decades old reviews that cost artists their faith in the seventh art. I fear for John Carter and Andrew Stanton, two men I want to succeed more than anything. So, while the obvious choice in response to both of these pieces was to ask my friends for their favourite films of the 90s, I also decided to go one step further. Below their choices, based solely on love and appreciation, are my selections of the best (whatever the fuck that means these days) Film Maudits of the 90s, the last decade capable of producing them. Whatever your thoughts about these 'failures,' they at least had the power to be hated.

First, our personal lists of favourites from the 90s:

Sean Van Deuren
Eyes Wide Shut
Bringing Out The Dead
Groundhog Day
Being John Malkovich
The Thin Red Line
Sweet And Lowdown

Noah Aust
The Celebration
City of Lost Children
12 Monkeys
Fight Club
Princess Mononoke
Night on Earth
Being John Malkovitch
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams

Tim Earle
Miller's crossing
The Big Lebowski
Fight Club
Porco Rosso
Toy Story 1 and 2
LA Story
Schindler's List
Being John Malkovitch

Fox Johnson
Saving Private Ryan
Pulp Fiction
Fargo / Big Lebowski
Forrest Gump
Toy Story
Jurassic Park
The Matrix
L.A. Confidential
Fight Club

Dan Khan
Three Colors: Red
Three Kings
Boogie Nights
Before Sunrise
The Sweet Hereafter
Pulp Fiction
Abre Los Ojos
Breaking the Waves

The Long Day Closes
Sleepy Hollow
The Double Life of Veronique
L.A. Confidential
Last of the Mohicans
Pulp Fiction
Heavenly Creatures
Topsy Turvy

And now onto the maudits!


by Ridley Scott

You'd think the man who reinvented/revitalized/restarted Sci-fi in the 80s could do no wrong. But Ridley Scott loves a challenge. Blade Runner and Alien back to back is a feat almost no one in his generation can touch. So we can forgive him picking the script for Legend, if it existed in any other form than cocktail napkin scribblings, because it afforded him the chance to show off majestically. Ralph Bakshi and whoever was manning the autopilot at Disney must have very seriously contemplated faking their own deaths when Legend was released and was nearly the most dazzling and diverting piece of visual art the decade produced. Did it make sense? There was no internal continuity, but that didn't stop Lord of the fucking Rings, did it? Fantasy, horror, sci-fi? What next? The erotic thriller, of course. Not exactly bountiful visual stuff, but at least he could ground them in realism and conduct stake-outs like ballet. Then the 80s action film. Still in Legend territory as far as the script's concerned, but in anyone else's hands it would have been much, much worse. One 'women's picture' later and he's ready to dive headlong back into the big budget period film he made his reputation on. Another challenge, Maestro? Make a film about Christopher Columbus, who may actually deserves the mantle reserved for Jimmy Carter as history's greatest monster, where he's the hero. Easier said than done, according to everyone but me. Do I have a complaint? The Vangelis music. Lightning didn't strike twice on that collaboration. Beyond that, 1492 feels like it was shot in 3D, such is its visual splendor and the ebullience of the sound design. It does manage to be that rare film about hubris that suffers from it, which is its own reward. Thanks to the nightmarish color corrected visuals, the foreign (to its heroes) setting of the main conflict, the practical effects and handcrafted sets, and that truly bizarre electronic score, 1492 has the distinction of being the Sorcerer of its decade. Did the world need a remake of The Wages of Fear? No, but William Friedkin turned in his one bonafide art film when given the task. Did the world need three simultaneous films about Columbus? No, but I would never have professed to being capable of feeling sympathy for the man, either, and Scott made me. That is his genius. Existing in the shadows of major studios, executives, and great big stacks of money, Ridley Scott was the lone artist capable of coming out unscathed, turning standard issue genre fare into human interest stories-cum-films noir. Can't seem to turn down a bad script, but when he can take an idea as misguided as an adventure film about the world's most famous murderer and make you empathize with him (a trick he'd repeat in Hannibal), even feel sorry for the man when his dreams are in danger of slipping away from him, then I forgive his hubris everytime. I should always like to be led astray by something so gorgeous.


by David Fincher

Not many people know I have an unpaid internship defending Alien³ on the internet. I get paid nothing and go around looking for people who write it off or disparage it in the vain hope of one day being able to talk to David Fincher about it. This sounds like a joke, but if I could put it in on my non-existent resume, I would. In a heartbeat. Few Hollywood disaster stories interest me as much as that of the third Alien movie. On paper the names they got make sense. Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. At one time or another these men could meld visual artistry with gut-level genre filmmaking that made audiences the world over swoon and empty their pockets in the same gesture. Of course the truth makes far less sense. Cameron has since dissolved into a harmless populist with no better an idea of how films fit together than George Lucas. Jeunet's film founders badly as he was, in a decision that uncannily echoes Anglo hiring François Truffaut over Jean-Luc Godard to direct Fahrenheit 451, picked to direct the most icky and philosophical film of the franchise over his much darker collaborator Marc Caro, who would have committed to the task more fully. Fincher was simply lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it. A film student who'd charmed his way into a career directing adverts and music videos was chosen to handle a franchise of such importance, I assume because producer David Giler assumed he'd be grateful for the job and do whatever was asked of him. Not so. Fincher immediately set about claiming his first big budget film for himself. The edit would mangle his baby beyond repair, but the initiated know that the Assemble Cut of Alien³, featuring most everything they removed from the theatrical, is the prototypical work of its creator. With Se7en, The Game and Fight Club he would push his camera beneath the surface of wealthy America (like the one occupied by his Alien³ producer/tormentors) and find the grimy secrets we all keep. His knack for dressing horrific environs was so legendary that in 2003, after Panic Room's release, marking the end of the first phase of his career, Patton Oswalt could reference "a dank, David Fincher-esque kitchen" in a stand-up bit and everyone in his audience knew what he was talking about. That all starts here. Alien³ is a fantastic directorial achievement, even if the script is aimless bullshit written by executives on a deadline. The filthy set dressing is here in full force as are the spiderweb like interiors, the air of helplessness, the sense of a higher power fucking you over for the sport of it and a color scheme that comes out from underneath Ridley Scott's legacy on the Nostromo to become something unique: a gothic fever-dream of orange hue so intense it's as if the prison is lit by Hieronymus Bosch's hellfire. Playing like a big budget sequel to Ghosts...of the Civil Dead 
with the rough edges sanded down or a Sci-Fi take on Heaven's GateAlien³ follows a group of not very convincingly repentant prisoners who've turned to jesus for salvation from themselves as they fight first temptation in the form of a never-hotter Sigourney Weaver and then face her protector/lover/rapist/creator, a phallic alien that runs around on all fours, a bastardized mutant from the first film's more elegant designs. The effects weren't ready for this film and date it badly, the performances range from sublime to dire, and the edit is one of the worst on record (if the film had any more noticeably mismatched ADR, all the dialogue would all be voice over), but none of that is on Fincher. His achievements are myriad and are the reason the film has become something of an obsession for me. Take the genius scene that properly starts the assemble cut: a lone man in a coat deliberately too big for him walks alone on a beach looking tiny next to disused construction and foundry equipment, the air so thick with pollutants it could be Pompeii circa 79. These men are all alone in the universe and Fincher finds the simplest ways of hammering home their existential dilemmas, only ever crossing the leaden symbolism line in the last minute of the movie (which definitely has the feel of a studio note). These are the angry men he'd find later in basements and in police stations. Looking for Fincher in Alien³ is hard but rewarding. David Cairns brilliantly points out that between the baldness,low-angles and oppresive lighting, Fincher was trying to make a sci-fi version of the The Passion of Joan of Arc. Picture Cameron trying that for a second. It's difficult imagining what his experience was like making the film, but when you see his fingerprints in there, it becomes hard to look away. I once watched it ten times in a week, paying careful attention, as I always do, to the stunningly strange climax in the leadworks. I've never been able to adequately explain what about this sequence I find so fascinating. Something about the inevitability of death and the way it manifests itself on the faces of the convicts who've survived everything their god can throw at them, now lining up in a labyrinth to give it away. I think maybe I love it so much because it's endemic of the whole film. Here they are on a deserted planet, underground, no less, doing something that may well save all life in the universe and no one (not even the audience of the movie, thanks to the fucking editing) will ever know about it. No one was aware that the trials of this  misbegotten, ill-advised, unnecessary sequel would pave the way for the spiritual heir to Stanley Kubrick, responsible for more trends in modern cinema than you can count one hand, untold billions of dollars and dozens of Academy Award nominations. Just as the game is about to start, one prisoner casually asks another "do you believe in this heaven shit?" I could picture that line coming from any of Fincher's heroes right on through to Noomi Rapace's Lizbeth Salander. I could picture heaven for Fincher looking a lot like a man being nominated for the highest honor we have for a director in North America, for a film he'd had complete control over. He's learned a lot in the intervening years, but I think the time has come to give credit to the man for turning a nightmare into a work of art and back again.

The Rainbow Thief

by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Of his two final films, Santa Sangre is more obviously the work of its director, Chilean madman Alejandro Jodorowsky, but The Rainbow Thief, its comparatively mawkish companion piece, is a side of the master I can't resist. Back in the 70s and between pre-production phases of his failed Dune adaptation, Jodorowsky directed Tusk, a heartfelt and completely forgotten adventure film that played like Au Hazard Balthasar by way of The Jungle Book. Tt had nothing of its auteur caustic surrealism, which probably killed it. In point of fact it's downright sentimental, something only visible in a half-second's aside in El Topo when the gunslinger cheers up his dwarf lover after they're forced to make love for some gunslingers' entertainment. This movie could have played to kids if it weren't shot entirely in extreme wide angles that destroy any sense of its human characters. They're tiny figures in a huge landscape, the titular elephant the film's only real hero. Santa Sangre is brilliant, but returns to the well that Jodorowsky dug for Fando Y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, but with a different rhythm to guide it. The Rainbow Thief is an unabashed heart-string tugger, even if its filtered through abstraction (long sections pass without dialogue, the side characters never get names or jobs beyond providing bite-sized whimsy, characters' motivations are hardly worthy of the name) and the director himself has disowned it. But I give him more credit than he gives himself. As an avid El Topo and Holy Mountain fan, you can imagine my sensibilities are a little cynical and harsh, but even my heart melts for The Rainbow Thief. How can you not love a film that reunites Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif for only the second time following Lawrence of Arabia and Night of the Generals? How can you not love a film that worships the maligned and forgotten in ways that anticipate The Fisher King and doesn't make you suffer Robin Williams? How can you not love a film in which Christopher Lee plays not only a sympathetic character for once, but a lovable, billionaire whore monger? How can you not a love a film that brings a dog back from the dead? Jodorowsky might not want to own up to having a heart, but here's exhibit A and I respect the man all the more for taking a chance on showing it to us. He may never make another film and that would be tragic, but I feel blessed to have seen the last gift he's given us.

Bram Stoker's Dracula

by Francis Ford Coppola

Nothing I'll ever say will make Keanu Reeves' performance better. There is no healing that scar, forever on the face of this singular achievement. Many people wished it had been silent, that there'd been last-minute casting changes, that Francis Ford Coppola had never stooped back into the genre he'd started his career with, that the whole affair would have been deemed folly and smothered in its infancy. It would have saved them the time and attention they spent killing it later. I don't pretend the film's a misunderstood masterpiece, only that it is the most cinematic and unforgettable adaptation that Bram Stoker's novel received since its first, F.W. Murnau's illegal and bountiful Nosferatu. And as much as I love Nosferatu (by any measure one of the most important horror films in history), its style can't compete with star Max Schreck's performance; Bela Lugosi's hammy pantomime was the most energetic thing about the first film to have the word 'Dracula' spoken aloud; in seven movies, Hammer never gave Christopher Lee a vehicle worthy of his performance as the count; and the less said about the John Badham version, the fuckin' better. Coppola in essence gave the film the mechanized, expressionistic treatment it missed out on by being directed by Murnau, a naturalist, instead of showmen like Robert Wiene or Fritz Lang, as if George Melies himself shot second unit. Coppola and his son did all the effects in camera and their work is nothing short of magic, the kind of thing Scorsese would rhapsodize in Hugo (not many people connected the two films last year, but they're practically siblings). Nevermind the performances, Coppola had the modern equivalents of Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino on his hands, who gives a shit if they embarrassed themselves a little? The film was the thing and it would outlive any single element. Dracula is like one of those giant clocks that Scorsese's boy hero keeps winding. The public knows the time, but can't see the gears turning. All they know is that when they're late it's the clock's fault. So when no one bought what they were seeing, Coppola walked home with the blame. Fine, sure, yeah, but has anyone who's seen this blood red adaptation ever forgotten its more bizarre tangents? Have these moments of pointed unreality ever left your nightmares for good? I'd rather go up river with Coppola anyday than watch someone spin their wheels in a genre they don't appreciate. My time will forever be his to waste.

Dead Man

by Jim Jarmusch

With each passing year I come to see Dead Man as an essential American masterpiece, warts and all. I've also come to see that there may be no such thing as a perfect western. The closest anyone's gotten would be The Searchers, followed closely by The Wild Bunch, which is the more effecting of the two. After that we run into grey areas. Surely Boetticher's paranoid chamber dramas The Tall T and Ride Lonesome deserve credit for their painterly aesthetics and ingenuity? Monte Hellman used the western to throw darts at our psychological complacency in low budget success stories Ride The Whirlwind and The Shooting. Anthony Mann surely deserves a little credit for bringing out the darkest side of Jimmy Stewart in the westerns they made together? Or how about more recent fare? James Mangold's 3:10 To Yuma kicks the shit out of the Delmer Daves original for sheer excitement, craft and performance; it's final minutes are almost too exciting for words. Andrew Dominik seems to captured more beauty in Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford than a lifetime of watching could ever appreciate. I'd argue that if you took the best things from these movies, you might arrive at the perfect western, but who the fuck wants perfection when all these jagged edges are so mesmerizing? Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man is his most successful toe-dipping into a genre (Ghost Dog is rough, even for a samurai film; The Limits of Control, however breath-taking, is barely the lone-killer film it masquerades as) and he gets far more mileage out of its inherent elements than he ever could breaking out of jail or into a gangster's mansion. Simply put, the western landscape he drags through is the perfect compliment to his style. Surrounded by dilapidated buildings or beautiful Spanish architecture, your mind could wander from the characters that these vistas dwarf. Not so here, where the land is the crux of its heroes journey. To paraphrase Mike D'Angelo on This Must Be The Place, every new scene is the reason the movie exists. Johnny Depp hops into the wrong bed to find comfort in a town he foolishly believed could hide any, and winds up gutshot for his sins. With the help of a sidekick who knows what it's like to lose the meaning in his life (and is thus almost as much a ghost as the dead man of the title), wanders through an unconventional western expanse to get to his point of departure, both physically and spiritually ready to die. Not for nothing was this the movie that Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the phrase 'Acid Western,' which then slid nicely into critical diction. It's almost too heady for its own good, but between Neil Young's haunting guitar accompaniment (I would also have accepted Nick Cave moaning softly) and Jarmusch turning the forest into the externalized depths of Depp's bruised and impacted psyche, it never gets ponderous; indeed, I was unexpectedly galvanized as Depp learns in his last moments to take up arms against the white men who stood in for the legacy of rape and genocide on which the country was founded. I find that in my memory, the film is simply a flood of images playing slowly over what I remember Young's guitar sounding like; a plaintive piano roll of images forever spinning in my brain. That is the power of the film. Anyone hoping for the jaunty adventures of earlier Jarmusch, the Freudian catharsis of John Ford or Howard Hawks, or the live painting demo quality of Sergio Leone will leave even more philosophically unbalanced and distressed than those with their expectations leveled properly.

Pola X

by Leos Carax

I have yet to encounter an undivided review of Pola X. Peter Bradshaw hated it, Scott Tobias praised its gynmastic camerawork and emotions but still used the word failure. Roger Ebert was the most emphatic in his praise, but even he couldn't come outright and say it, like he was worried what people would think of him if he gave his two digits to this mad chapter of French cinema. Their opinions now seem quaint, unnecessary, as they're the only people who've seen the movie - they were talking to themselves and Leos Carax. You could almost divorce Pola from its cinematic achievements and still this would be a crucial film, a one-of-a-kind artistic autopsy on a still-living subject. From the top, the one-two punch (the sort delivered by Jacques Tati in Soigne ton Gauche) of Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang. The former was a cool slice of post-punk co-option; an Epstein-double exposure here, a Bressonian dialogue there. The plot is incidental except that it happens to Denis Lavant and registers on that pouting, once-a-generation face of his. Carax struck harder,  in color and in love with Juliette Binoche, in Mauvais Sang. Here he painted a paranoid, claustrophobic world in Black, Red and Whites for Lavant and Binoche to (literally) spread their wings; Nicholas Ray and Godard in one lithe body. They were so loved that when it came time to send Alex, Lavant and Carax's shared form, on his next adventure, no expense was spared, leading to the heartbreakingly raw, mega-satisfying and unbelievably romantic Lovers on the Bridge. But because of the runaway costs (shades of Cimino) and its refusal to adhere to narrative conventions or New Wave chicanery, it wasn't enough for his supposedly adoring public. This was the film Carax had threatened to make without any constraints and it was insufficiently loved (at least for my liking). It sent Carax into a depression; losing Binoche couldn't have helped. Pola X was what it was like in his mind, and thus while many people point to Lovers as the superior film, to me they're inextricable. The story, despite following the plot of the Melville novel it takes its name and story from fairly closely, is as pure an autobiography as it is a syringe full of pure cinema. The story starts on an estate in Normandy rendered in even more effulgent  detail than the hero's angelic bride. Nothing's happening at first, but it's intoxicating; circumstances built from assured, unforgettable images. Pierre, played by the almost unreally gorgeous Guillaume Depardieu, is due to wed Delphine Chuillot's almost virginal Lucie, until dark haired gypsy Isabelle, played by Yekaterina Golubeva, finds him and explains she might be his sister. And thus he finds the excuse he'd been looking for to shatter his moneyed, complacent existence in one alluring and sexy package. What follows is a descent into self-imposed madness unlike anything ever depicted. Pola X is exactly what was inside Carax's unconscious mind at the time of its creation, rendered in razor sharp detail. When Lovers failed to live up to the impossible expectations the public had built up for it, they all paid for Pola X, which was nothing short of artistic crisis and personal turmoil burned onto celluloid. And in the burning, some unearthly things are captured. Depardieu, who through what cannot be coincidence (Carax has taken my belief out of the very notion of coincidence), looks like the spitting image of Sharunas Bartas, Golubeva's husband, who plays the orchestrator of the commune Pierre and Isabelle hit rock bottom at, and is Pierre with no connection to the outside world, just Isabelle is Marie without money or privilege. When Pierre and Isabelle consummate their impossible, undeniable love, the world seems to cave in on itself. Who are watching? Depardieu? Bartas? Golubeva? Some anonymous body doubles? Who does the director want it to be, fumbling erotically in the near darkness. Carax made sure that if this was the last film he made before being immolated by his own unrequited love and ambition, he was taking the world with him.

Khrustalyov, My Car!

by Aleksei German

Imagining Werkmeister Harmonies directed by Ken Russell would still leave you inadequately prepared for this banquet of paranoia and black hilarity. Sure, there are shades of a dozen films, not the least of which are Zulawski's Devil,  Zbynek Brynych's ...And The Fifth Horseman is Fear and Piotr Szulkin's Ga-Ga - Glory to the Heroes, but there's something else at play here that defies precedent, even in that esteemed company. It seems to come from another era entirely, like it was shot around 1970 while the equipment was free between The Witches' Hammer and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. For all I know the film stock may have expired back when the soviets had to ration it. And in the complex history of Russian cinema, Aleksei German has had a harder time getting his films viewed than probably any of his peers, if he can be said to have any. Knowing that his movies had been banned and almost burned everytime out, he left not a single image or idea on the floor when he entered his fourth decade as a director, meaning that often some of the most brilliantly warped imagery of the 90s is simply tossed off in any given three seconds of Khrustalyov - a dog in a basket stuck to a zipline in a dining room is gone before we've quite realized what we've seen. And perfectly none of this imagery ever interferes with the story, or ever seems to bother its Soviet Superofficial hero. The surreal nature of a falling empire is lost on him, as it would have been on anyone in the inner circle of a madman, as he seeks desperately for how to avoid the fall of an empire adversely effecting his power and dignity. There hasn't been a narrative film like this in many moons (for a while, the darkly comic Nero-fiddled road-movie was almost its own genre in European cinema until digital made tracking shots, the greatest weapon in their arsenal, less impressive), perhaps because by they are by their nature, too ugly? Too honest? Too near the bone? Irrelevant? Whatever the reason, German's film fell on deaf ears and resulted in more Cannes walkouts than L'Avventura. The wounds were still fresh for German who had to make movies under a repressed and deeply ashamed regime's watchful eyes (indeed, many of the film's tangents were based on his own experiences with state surveillance), but the world had moved on. Up the alley, and out of the screening room door. Cannes, for their part, was stinging from Angelopoulos's barbed 1995 dismissal of the jury and had no interest in doing anything but repairing their relationship by awarding the Palme d'Or to one of his least substantial films simply because it was his. If only they'd waited six years, he'd have given them something worthy of the honor. But back to German. Dennis Lim wagered that Michael Cimino would still be working on Heaven's Gate if he could. The same is true of German, for whom My Car! was not just autobiography, but a statement of purpose. His life as improvised roadmap for his camera, ever roving, ever following, along for a ride that seems too impossible to be true. And yet, German planned every second of this movie, and for his sins, all the time in the world to keep making it, even if only in his head.

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

by Terry Gilliam

There isn't much left to say about Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which has been all but rescued from its disastrous origins, except to say that it is a case study in adaptation. Look no further than the muted response to Walter Salles' On The Road. Handsome, dependable, even occasionally great, but it never had a prayer of replacing its source material in the eyes of its fans. The reason? Salles is too much of a fan to do it any damage or let his own style (which isn't exactly blinding at the best of times) run roughshod over the prose. So what does it become? A Merchant Ivory film in beat clothing. Harmless. The opposite of what it should be. For the record I enjoyed On The Road, but it's worth mentioning that the best director can do in adapting a book is fill up the space where prose lives between words and actions and replace it with their own demons, neuroses and obsessions, filtered through a style only they can provide. Gilliam's Fear and Loathing did the unthinkable - rendered its source material irrelevant. Hunter S. Thompson's book was nothing shy of a cultural avalanche when it first arrived, apparently coughed out during a hangover in blistering, inimitable style. Now imagine a movie that actually bests it. Gilliam's stylistic hallmarks are at their most voracious here, dutch tilts eating the frame, images of such stark oddity that they deserve whole films to themselves, and the camera all the while attached like a conjoined twin to the vicious lunatic spirits (Johnny Depp giving his best and most iconic performance as the author and Benicio Del Toro, barely recognizable behind a hundred pounds of beer gut, dark glasses and the most threatening mustache of the decade) who serve for two hours as Vegas' worst tour guides. And yet it's also maybe the most faithful adaptation since The Maltese Falcon. Gilliam came to praise Hunter Thompson and the runaway decade that spawned him, not bury them. He didn't throw the book out, he opened his brain up with a hacksaw and painted over the pages with what fell out. If that sounds like something you want to put yourself through, "Get innnn!"


by David Cronenberg

I didn't get it either when I first saw it, either, so forgive those who condemned it. Joe Bob Briggs brought this film to my attention in his unmissable tome, Profoundly Disturbing (spoiler, Crash is anything but). I watched it, as I did every other film in its pages I'd yet to see, and wondered just what in god's name I'd watched. Why did no one ever raise their voice? Why did no one seem to feel anything, even in the throes of acrobatic sex? Why the pornographic lingering over car crashes? This was before I'd discovered Bresson, mind you. So, after a lot more viewing (including every other Maudit hiding in director David Cronenberg's closet), I gave it another shot. The clouds parted and the grey skies of Toronto had never looked clearer or brighter. Cronenberg had taken the emotions and the behavior of modern North Americans and inverted them. The emotional detachment he and author J.G. Ballard witnessed behind the false smiles of most people was externalized in Crash. Their affect reflected their troubled minds and unrequited libidos. They were all desire and no release - even in a world where random sex was normalzed, politeness and conservatism had forced it underground. So people move about their day at the speed of ignorance and repression. So Cronenberg halts them in their fucking tracks and watches the sparks fly. Note: puns are hard to avoid when talking about this film, but I'll try my best. Many people are going to misunderstand a film that, as Briggs put its, is a love story told through sex scenes, especially in a culture that paved the way for 50 Shades of Grey being a housewife cause celebre. They cannot deal with the subject honestly, let alone when Cronenberg presented it in such stark, cold light. He wasn't going to busy up the frame, nothing to get in the way of the confrontational nature of the discussion of sexuality, which no one can seem to own up to. What chance did a film that uses an underground cult of people turned on by car accidents stand with Newt Gingrich trying to keep women and their periods out of trenches? But more than honest Crash is a much sweeter and more romantic film than its ever given credit for (and frankly it's rarely given credit for existing outside the pages of Film Comment, Cahiers and Senses of Cinema). Is there any more tender image than James Spader licking Patricia Arquette's leg-wound in the backseat of his car? Don't answer yet. Remember that I also think the blood-soaked kiss between two 12 year olds in Let The Right One In is the most heartwarming thing I've ever seen. Crash is a film that goes into our brains to shock us back into feeling, so naturally, we forbid children from seeing it. Heaven help us if they ever realize what we've done to intimacy.

The Hudsucker Proxy

by Joel and Ethan Coen
After years of hearing about what a joyless slog Intolerable Cruelty was, imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a delicious confectionary of expertly crafted wordplay and near-explosive levels of chemistry between its two flappable leads. "How had this happened?" I wondered, while laughing my ass off, "how could a film this good by America's cinematic sweethearts have been swept under the rug like that?" Well, anyway, The Coen Brothers were at least used to that sort of disappointment. After all, they'd made The Hudsucker Proxy. Intolerable Cruelty is a delight, to be true, an homage to Howard Hawks, Leo McCary and Preston Sturges' comedies of remarriage centering appropriately enough on a divorce attorney who tastes his own bitter medicine and as well as it works just as well as tribute and stand alone comedy (George Clooney's comedic prowess never gets enough notice for my liking). Next to Hudsucker, however, Intolerable looks more like the work of Mitchell Leisen than Preston Sturges. Sturges was the genuine article in American comedy. In his best films, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Hail The Conquering Hero and Unfaithfully Yours (As long as we're sticking up for the underdog here I'll just say that Unfaithfully Yours is a gem and I will hear no one besmirch it), he balanced humour so bold you wonder how it slipped past the censors, scabrous satire of values unique to wartime America and romance that shot past heartwarming into gripping. He had such a perfect hand with sentiment that he could appear to be making fun of the very notion of it, even as he freely indulged. He was one of a kind. But leave it to The Coen Brothers to make a film that pretends to his throne and earns the right to sit there. Painstakingly crafted through nostalgia-colored glasses and set in a place we recognize as our past but in no definite moment, corporate stooge Tim Robbins rockets to the top of a toy company despite having no knowledge of the job or that he's being set up for a literal and metaphorical fall by his handler, a never-sleazier Paul Newman, cashing in on his impossible-to-dislike irascibility and charm. The boardroom antics, Sturges-esque wordplay and bureaucratic chutes-and-ladders are hilarious, but once Jennifer Jason Leigh enters the story, this stops being a comedy no one laughed at and becomes a masterpiece whose failure isn't just baffling, it's a tragedy on par with the sinking of the Titanic, the execution of the Rosenbergs or the cancellation of Pushing Daisies. Leigh's portrayal of a savvy journalist who goes undercover to scoop Robbins' rise to fame mirrors Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town but without hiding her unscrupulousness so disingenuously as Frank Capra does. It's a testament to the Coen's writing and feather-light direction (rendered on resplendent art deco production design, for my money their best, through the prism of Roger Deakins dark-matter heavy photography) that they pursue a route that out-bleaks famous Scrooges like Capra and Sturges, and still manages to seem more lighthearted than Meet John Doe or Unfaithfully Yours, which flirt with murder and suicide as aggressively as Leigh does with Robbins. Leigh's feisty journalist is a more endearing proto-feminist trouser-sporter than Cate Blanchet's Hepburn impersonation; better still, she brings a sexuality to her role that outstrips even the Claudette Colberts and Barbara Stanwycks of the golden age, and again, genuinely. Through the performance, through her palpably masked longing, through her robust personality. She maybe a shade of fast-talking-dames past, but she's a fully realized character, and if you don't want to marry her by the time the credits role, you must be a Franklin Pangborn character. Or worse, William Demarest. I still marvel at the level of detail that went into making Hudsucker Proxy such a loving, feel-good tribute to loving, feel-good comedies so dipped in sarcasm you could drown in it. And that's even without taking into account how fucking funny it is. It's that rare film that gets nearly everything right (wouldn't be on this list if it were actually perfect). When the film failed at the box office, I bet Preston Sturges took a belt for both Joel and Ethan Coen in auteur heaven. "Don't worry, boys. They didn't get me, either."

Let the Sky Fall - Great Bond or Greatest Bond?

Warning: There Will Be Spoilers

I sat there watching the latest bond film in an IMAX theatre just as the filmmakers intended, but it just wasn't going the extra mile. At around the destruction of the subway I thought: "well, this is probably as good as it gets, as far as Bond is concerned. Respectable, sturdy and fun, but this isn't exactly art." I got to thinking about the recent history of the franchise. Same goes. Casino Royale worked beautifully on the big screen and I remember walking out feeling great about the future of the franchise considering it was the only Bond film I'd seen I was prepared to take seriously, but Martin Campbell is no artist. I liked Quantum, too, a good deal, and the editing was practically revolutionary where the franchise was concerned. It had the same structure as an old Bond, complete with a far-away location for the climax and a big, big explosion; I was satisfied where many others were hopelessly lost. But I think we can all agree that it falls a little short of perfection. Blame the editor I loved, blamed the script I applauded for taking my intelligence for granted, blame Forster, who was after the momentum of information and the speed of the world that had turned the old movies into artefacts instead of classics, blame the writers' strike that forced star Daniel Craig and Forster to rewrite as they went along, doing a pretty fucking good job in my opinion.

So, in the midst of this, comes a Prometheus-worthy shot of eyespresso in the form of that gorgeous, come-from-nowhere wide-screen shot of Scotland. Then my expectations shifted. Gone were the upper-register neons of Shanghai, the voluptuous candle-lit Macao interiors, the arid whites of the Japanese ghost town and the moistened, business-like blues, greys and browns of London. Suddenly we were somewhere else entirely and Roger Deakins, not Sam Mendes, was now in control. The rest of the film is in almost total darkness and Deakins uses every trick imaginable to at first sink to zero before using the black sky as a canvas onto which he paints an impressionist sky. He conducts colors and light like they were the string section of his great symphony while Mendes remakes Straw Dogs in the melody. The movie as a whole has problems, not the least of them technical - the sound edit needs work to be as cool as they wish it was, and the CG humans feel like a step backward considering the seamlessness of the motorcycle chase. So this is most definitely a better film and franchise film especially than say the still very sturdy Bourne Legacy, I can't make up my mind as to how it compares to Dark Knight Rises which maintained a more consistent tone and look but felt less human. And as much as I appreciate the wink-nudge references, I don't know they square with the film's back-to-basics story. So I ask you... What did I just watch?


As far as I'm concerned, Skyfall starts when Javier Bardem gets off the elevator. At least, that's where it becomes a Sam Mendes film rather than a Bond film. No one in Bond history has done something so patient as let the villain do a monologue in one shot. Not to mention let the villain hide in the shadows for the first 40 minutes of the picture. Whether or not they let Mendes do any of the writing, I give him most of the credit for making so much of the film about M. No Bond film in history (and honestly, most action films) gives that much screen time to one of the female characters but the movie is arguably more about her than it is about Bond. Not to mention the entire 4th act of the film. Skyfall and Casino are five act films and generally the first two acts are fairly useless. The 4th act finds us at Skyfall and the remainder of the film broke the mold of every Bond film in history. Bond literally never on the defensive until this 23rd film. And its funny because though we've seen this kind of sequence a million times before, its somehow born anew in this film. But yes, you're 100% correct. As soon as the sun sets at Skyfall, and actually earlier if you wanna count the interiors of the hunting lodge, it's most definitely Deakin's show. But what's more is, I really think Mendes did this intentionally.

Shooting a sequence lit entirely by a burning house and making it look that good is no easy feat and I'm sure that scene in the script was the reason they gave the Deak a call in the first place. I also think that Deakins took the job to pay Elswitt back for rocking our worlds with the oil derrick sequence in There Will Be Blood [for which Elswitt won his oscar over Deakins' two simultaneous nominations that year -ed]. But yeah, the movie carries more weight than I've ever really felt in a Bond film before. Casino Royale definitely made us care about the characters but the Venice sequence of that movie is achingly dull. At least Skyfall manages to build upon itself rather than hit a peak and then plateau or come back down. Barring the final scene of course. The winks and nudges were a little too much for me and the whole ending seemed super clunky. I'm happy that MGM managed to not go down in flames because these are great modern action films but the back to basics idea sucks. If anything, they should have built off the emotional power of Skyfall and finished out Craig's Bond run with a two film storyline that uses his extremely fractured psyche because of the loss of M to really drive home Craig as an amazing 007. 


Tangent: Let me quickly point out that Elswitt had to somewhere have been contemplating Deakins shooting this when he signed on to shoot Bourne Legacy. I think it's safe to say that Deakins wins this round.


For sure. I love the idea of a Amadeus-style rivalry between those two.


Ok, let me ask you this: You say 'a Sam Mendes film' and the color scheme of the turning makes perfect sense, but I'm at best a casual Mendes fan. I hate American Beauty, I think Revolutionary Road is extremely (albeit honorably) misguided and borderline unwatchable, I like Road to Perdition an awful lot, but the script occasionally gets in the way of Mendes at his most cinematic and vice versa. So, and I don't at all mean that you should need to defend him or the films I don't enjoy, but when you say that Skyfall becomes more his movie, what does that mean? I could see Perdition in the scenes of M standing at a rain-drenched window making moral calls, but beyond that I do have a feeling my bias/engagement prevented me from looking for his fingerprints.


Before I saw Skyfall, I watched the other two Craig Bond films back to back. Literally hours before. I really enjoy both of them. They're fantastic action films. Some of the best in recent memory actually. Casino is well directed and shot and though its a better film than Quantum, the latter destroys it with it's cinematography and editing. And as Skyfall gets off and running it appears just like the previous two films. Fast paced, edited in a manic fashion and visually very pretty but not in a true film way. It's beautiful like a video game. Deakins is never not completely aware of what he's doing so if something looks good you can be damn sure he did it on purpose. But as Silva steps off the elevator the film shifts away from what we've come to expect from the latest Bond films. It stops. Quite literally. The camera doesn't move for a good two minutes while Silva approaches Bond, telling the story of trapping rats on an island. That's unheard of in most action films but the latest Bond stuff especially. It's funny because though I went into Skyfall really excited to have Mendes at the helm, the only real reason for that was Road to Perdition. I absolutely adore that film quite honestly for the same reasons I loved Skyfall.

In a genre filled with car chases and tommy guns, Mendes goes in the complete opposite direction creating a quiet, patient and emotional story. And though I had to laugh at the accuracy of your "Bond loves cars more than women" comment [I wrote on twitter/facebook that I thought it was a little troubling that Bond seems more distraught over the destruction of an antique car than he does when an important female character who he's had relations with is murdered in front of his eyes -ed], Skyfall is most definitely the most emotionally charged Bond film of all and I think that it has a lot to do with Mendes presence. So I guess to simplify all of this jaw whackin' into a few sentences, I feel that Mendes' fingerprints are all over the film once Silva shows up. The film is pretty manic and a tad sloppy up to that point, but once the story becomes focused, I really see Mendes trying as hard as he can to keep it that way. To really draw out emotional connections between Bond and M, Bond and Skyfall, and even Bond and Silva, as James sees himself heading down the same road Silva has, growing older and less useful in the eyes of the Secret Service. I'd be lying if I didn't think Skyfall could have done a lot of those things better but I think Mendes was the perfect director for the script they were working with and despite all the feelings bouncing around they did manage to keep that thing action packed, even at two and a half hours, which is unbelievably long for an action film. So with all that said, though I do credit Mendes and Deakins for whipping up one hell of a picture, I also think that the Bond's producers should be commended for really thinking on their material and picking the right auteur for the job.


I couldn't agree more. Let's see just how the fuck they're gonna top this, eh?