Movies That Matter (to Us)

So, tonight, on our four-month anniversary (go us!), Teresa and I decided to compile a list of our one hundred favorite films. In the spirit of diversity and inclusion, we decided to try and limit our selections to one entry per director. In a few instances, however, we couldn't agree on a filmmaker's best work, yet both felt strongly that said filmmaker should be represented, so we broke our rule and listed two separate films. (Even so, there are dozens of key figures who didn't make the cut, for one reason or another: von Stroheim, de Oliveira, Eisenstein, Akerman, Antonioni, Warhol, Brakhage, Imamura, Feuillade, Jarmusch, not to mention the glaring absence of a couple entire continents.) Eighty of the films here are individual picks (forty apiece--'J' for Josh, 'T' for Teresa), which we may not jointly admire; the remaining twenty are consensus choices (denoted as 'J/T') that may or may not have made it on as personal faves, but that we both like plenty.

Oh, right. Here's the list.


3 x 2 - 1

I recently watched five of the six vignettes from the Three...Extremes and Three (aka Three Extremes II) collections. At Teresa's insistence that The Wheel was "lame," we skipped that one. My thoughts on the other five.

Memories Despite the hypnotic fairly tale-style imagery, I didn't much care for Kim Ji-woon's A Tale of Two Sisters, which doubled back on its myriad charms with a cheap, late Shyamalanesque twist. Kim's contribution to Three takes a similar route to a similar end, but the strategy works more effectively here as a short form. If it's still not entirely satisfying, Memories nevertheless solidifies Kim as a striking visual artist, equally adept at illuminating an eerie urban landscape (the banner that greets visitors entering the city: "Welcome to New Town, Where Dreams Come True") and traversing a haunted country manor.

Going Home
Part quirky dark comedy, part Old Hollywood romantic tragedy, Peter Chan's entry in the series is one of the finer efforts on display, if the least creepy installment. As a lonely doctor attempting to revive his dead wife, Leon Lai is superb. While getting the most out of his star, Chan steers the shift from ghost story to idiosyncratic humor to operatic melodrama with skill to spare.

Fruit Chan's stomach-turning satire is to Three...Extremes what Wong Kar-wai's The Hand was to the Eros project--the clear show-stealer, and quite possibly a mini-masterpiece. (Probably not coincidentally, both directors are aided invaluably by Christopher Doyle, the best DP in the business today.) At once, shocking, grimly hilarious, and viciously incisive, Chan's film is finally an ambiguous cherry bomb, allowing room for missives on our image-obsessed (global) culture, sexist double standards, New Age kooks, and China's notorious disregard for human life. By no means "pleasant," but unforgettable, to be sure.

Cut Park "Oldboy" Chan-wook's entry is a nasty piece of meta sadism, starring a phlegm-gargling Korean version of Robert De Niro's King of Comedy character. If this sounds like your bag, then go for it. It's not mine.

In his audio commentary track, director Takashi Miike says that silence and stillness are central themes in his film, and that "the moment of waking up" is a particularly essential concept. Box is, somewhat surprisingly (coming from the man who made Audition and Ichi the Killer), more quasi-möbius strip tone poem than gory horror show. Its deliberate pacing and snowbound visual scheme are haunting, and I'm still mulling over the rhythms Miike establishes within his condensed narrative.


Superman Is Alive

"Show Me What You Got" is good. "Kingdom Come" is great, the sort of effortless, playfully sinister flow that seals the deal for Jay as not just the best rapper alive--but, ahem, ever. I really can't wait for the whole enchilada to drop (or at least leak).

Newsflash: If it weren't for Timbaland firing on all cylinders, Just Blaze would surely be in the running for producer-of-the-year, dabbling in Public Enemy and Rick James for a pair of insta-classic beats. This shit is seriously hot.


Me on The Departed.

Teresa on The Departed.
Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

If the world weren't such a cold, unforgiving place, Down in the Valley would have been given the decent-budget / wide-release-Edward-Norton film treatment--in place of The Illusionist. Sure, it's about a dozen times less marketable than a classy period piece, and it doesn't have any Giamatti, or a swellingly dramatic Philip Glass score. It's got all the indie trappings (weird storyline, Evan Rachel Wood) holding it back. I realize this. But, it's a much better film than that soggy magician one, and it most certainly didn't deserve its blink and you'll miss it theatrical run, or hardly-rented DVD status. At the very least, it should have made some waves.

Why? Well, not only does Valley hold Norton's best, riskiest performance since 25th Hour, it's also one of the few genuinely imaginative, original works to come out of American film within the past few years. An effortlessly passionate story that transcends its small-scale setting, allowing the unfolding events to be weighted with life or death importance.

Norton plays Harlan, a man woefully out of place in modern-day San Fernando Valley, who retains old school Western charm (of the cowboy hat-tipping "Howdy there, little lady." variety), and happens to tote loaded guns, should a need to save the day in a heroic shootout arise. It's while working at a gas pump that he meets Evan Rachel Wood's Tobe--short for "October"--and promptly renders himself unemployed by ditching his duties to visit the beach with her and her gal pals. Normally, warning bells would go off here, with this guy being at least 15 years her senior, and willingly taking extreme measurements to be with her. Yet Harlan seems so unassumingly kind, and clueless: you feel more protective of him than the teenage girl he's courting.

Of course, though, their uneasy romance begins to crumble into American Dream-cum-nightmare territory, by way of an overprotective dad, some decidedly shady behavior from Harlan, and a whole lot of gunplay. By the end of the film, it's taken so many quirky turns, led its characters to such strange places, it's unclear who should be the 'bad guy,' or if there is one at all. Harlan, while earnest and well-meaning, ain't no John Wayne. And Tobe's family, reacting through fear and confusion, manage to inadvertently push him over the already-well-in-view edge. Maybe there's no right or wrong here--only broken hopes, childlike innocence, hasty reactions, and doomed figures. All the better, if you ask me.

This Shakespearean tragedy, things gone awry aspect is what makes Down in the Valley impossible to shake. Writer/director David Jacobson handles every extreme genre shift so deftly, I'm left feeling optimistic about what he may tackle next (and forgiving of his previous effort, Criminal). And, hey, if all else fails and nothing here appeals to you, there's a real nice Taxi Driver homage.


Notre Musique

With PJ Harvey having fallen off a bit, Sleater-Kinney calling it quits, and no for-sure word yet on Kingdom Come, John Darnielle has, for the time being, inherited the most-reliable-artist mantle. Get Lonely doesn't pack the immediate punch of last year's The Sunset Tree nor the thematic sprawl of Tallahassee, but, make no mistake, it's vintage Mountain Goats all the way. "Maybe Sprout Wings" is as exquisitely sad as any Darnielle track to date, while the lead-off single, "Woke up New," boasts a jangly defiance in the vein of "This Year" or "Palmcorder Yajna." Darnielle relays, "I wandered through the house like a little boy lost at the mall / and an astronaut could've seen the hunger in my eyes from space," before proceeding into the chorus: "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do [his voice cracking slightly]? What do I do without you?"--a de facto Alpha Couple epilogue shot through with (what sounds like) the added poignancy of experience. He's our Neil Young, people. Really.

Conversely, I'd just about forgotten about Joanna Newsom, despite liking 2004's The Milk-Eyed Mender more than a little and replaying "Inflammatory Writ" every so often. Her new record, Ys (pronounced "ees" apparently), is a tremendously pleasant surprise. Aside from longer, more expansively arranged songs, it doesn't necessarily stray that far from the ethereal-harp-weird/weirdly pretty-voice formula that worked for Newsom last time around, but there are moments of such rare, incredible beauty here that it's easy to forget the old freak-folk debate or any such subgenre semantics. The final stretch of the nearly-17-minute "Only Skin" is the most stunningly, sparklingly, exhilaratingly lovely thing I've heard in years. My wife can't stand it. I can't stop listening. She puts on headphones and turns up her nose.


Expanded thoughts on Dead Man's Shoes up today at Stylus.