Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Ed Wood (Burton)
2. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (De Bello)
3. Citizen Kane (Welles)
4. The Thin Blue Line (Morris)
5. The Island of Black Mor (Laguionie)
6. Knight Rusty (Bodenstein)
7. The Men of Dodge City (Rao)
8. Before Sunset (Linklater)
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
10. Funeral Parade of Roses (Matsumoto)


A New German Cinema Primer

Inspired by the French New Wave, the New German Cinema was formed by a loose affiliation of filmmakers in the late 1960s as a reaction against the commercially-oriented and artistically moribund German cinema of the previous several generations. The movement picked up steam in the 1970s when its three most famous proponents (Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog) became fixtures on the international art house circuit. Although that trio remains the public face of the New German Cinema to this day, there are many other wonderful filmmakers associated with the movement who helped to reinvigorate world cinema and continued the artistic innovations begun by the nouvelle vague in the post-1968 era. Below are 10 essential films by 10 different directors that I consider lynchpins of the New German Cinema.

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, 1968)


Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet are the odd persons out in this primer both by virtue of their nationality (they were born and raised in France) and in the sense that their works were more avant-garde than the other directors more commonly associated with the New German Cinema. But they made most of their films in Germany contemporaneously with the other filmmakers listed here, were affiliated with the “Oberhausen group” — an important predecessor to the New German Cinema — and collaborated on a 1968 short film with Fassbinder and his theater troupe. That very same year they also released their first feature film, a biopic of Johann Sebastien Bach that consists mostly of static long-takes of the composer (played by virtuoso harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt) performing many of his greatest works live on camera. Linking these scenes are interludes depicting Bach’s domestic life that feature his wife, Anna (Christiane Lang), reading excerpts from her diary. Often referred to as “austere,” “rigorous” and “demanding,” this is probably the least conventional and yet arguably the greatest biopic ever made about a classical composer: by focusing relentlessly on his music, Straub and Huillet bring us as close as cinematically possible to the man.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)


Werner Herzog was probably less interested in the specific socio-political climate of post-war Germany than any of his fellow German New Wavers. His point of view was always more cosmic, his great subject always man vs. nature, which is nowhere more apparent than in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the film many would call his masterpiece. The plot details a 16th century expedition of Spanish conquistadors to South America in search of “El Dorado,” the mythical city of gold, a journey destined to end in madness and despair. Aguirre is notable for being the first of many collaborations between Herzog and his alter-ego Klaus Kinski, unforgettable as the eponymous Don Lope de Aguirre, whose journey into the heart of darkness causes him to lose his grip on reality. The view of human nature on display is as bleak as it is absurd but there’s no denying the conviction of Herzog’s vision, nor the hypnotic quality of the images, impressively captured on location in the jungles of South America.

Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave (Kluge, 1973)


Everyone should see at least one movie by Alexander Kluge (and if you like it, see more). I recommend starting with Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, a Godardian/Brechtian account of a housewife and mother, Roswitha Bronski (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister), who works part-time as an illegal abortionist. Although she first embarks on her profession merely as a means to pull in extra income for her family, Roswitha becomes increasingly radicalized along political lines as the narrative progresses — particularly after the factory that employs her husband plans on shipping jobs to Portugal. This bold experiment mixes documentary-like scenes (including graphic images of a real abortion) with political slogans and omniscient narration, resulting in a provocative and heady intellectual stew. But Kluge, unlike his countryman R.W. Fassbinder (not to mention Godard), is more interested in sociology than cinema and his movies consequently remain fascinating documents of the time and place in which they were made that do not necessarily transcend them.

Tenderness of the Wolves (Lommel, 1973)


Out of all the films of the New German Cinema, this is the one that feels the most indebted to the classic German Expressionist films of the 1920s and early 30s — though the tropes of Expressionism have certainly been updated to the 1970s with a vengeance. Tenderness of the Wolves tells the disturbing true story of Fritz Harrmann, a serial killer dubbed the “Werewolf of Hanover,” who molested, killed and cannibalized at least two dozen boys in the years immediately after WWI, which the filmmakers have updated to the post-WWII years for budgetary reasons. This was written by Kurt Raab who also plays Harrmann as a kind of real-life Nosferatu (surely the bald head and slightly pointy ears are no coincidence), and directed by Ulli Lommel. Both were proteges of Rainer Werner Fassbinder who produced and also has a small role. The supporting cast is a veritable who’s-who of the Fassbinder stock company, so fans of the great German director (and/or true crime aficionados with strong stomachs) cannot afford to miss this.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Von Trotta/Schlondorff, 1975)


Katharina Blum, a young “domestic,” has a one-night stand with a man who, unbeknownst to her, is a wanted anarchist-terrorist. The next morning she is arrested by the police and subject to intensive interrogation. Upon being released, she is hounded by an unscrupulous yellow journalist and harassed by both her acquaintances and total strangers. While the film functions as a plea for the civil rights of individual citizens and comes down hard on both the government and the press, this is no simple polemic. Margarethe Von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff (who were married at the time) co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s novel, which ambitiously captures the turbulent political climate at the time — when “anti-imperialist” terrorism was rampant in Germany — with all of the intelligence and complexity the subject deserves. Angela Winkler is excellent in the title role but some contemporary viewers might get an even bigger kick out of spying a young Dieter Laser (the mad scientist in The Human Centipede) in an early role as the sleazy reporter.

Hitler: A Film from Germany (Syberberg, 1977)


Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s colossal, experimental seven-hour anti-biopic considers the rise and fall of Hitler from a variety of perspectives, all of them Brechtian, which play out on a single dark soundstage equipped with rear projection. Through a series of lengthy monologues we see a multiplicity of Hitlers (Hitler as Charlie Chaplin, Hitler as literal puppet, Hitler as M‘s Hans Beckert, Hitler as ventriloquist’s dummy, etc.), a cluster of signifiers that attempt to show not only how Hitler came to power but what he “means” — as lessons from the holocaust continue to reverberate on the world-historical stage. We also meet other figures of the Third Reich both real (Himmler), fictional (Hitler’s private projectionist) or a hybrid of the two (Hitler’s personal valet), each of whom serves to guide us through this long dark night of the German soul. Syberberg also explicitly deals with the problems of representing his subject without sensationalizing it and the deliberately didactic end result consequently alternates between being riveting and boring. Never before have I encountered a work of art that seemed at once so truly great and yet so necessarily tedious.

The American Friend (Wenders, 1977)


Since the release of his beloved Wings of Desire in 1987, the critical reputation of Wim Wenders has taken a nosedive (at least as a director of fiction features). But for much of the 1970s and 1980s he was considered to be at the vanguard of international arthouse cinema. Wenders has always been deeply indebted to American culture (as evidenced by my favorite of his films, this adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel), which he filters through his distinctly European/existential sensibility. The American Friend revolves around Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American con artist living in Berlin, and how he contracts a picture framer with a fatal disease (Bruno Ganz) to commit murder. But story ultimately takes a back seat to characterization and, more importantly, atmosphere in this slow-paced, moody neo-noir, which features appropriate and delightful cameos from American noir specialists Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, 1980)


Of all the directors associated with the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was arguably the greatest and, with some 44 titles to his credit — most of them features (in a career spanning just 16 years!) — certainly the most crazily prolific. Berlin Alexanderplatz is my favorite of Fassbinder’s films, a 15-and-a-half-hour made-for-television epic that ambitiously adapts Alfred Doblin’s equally mammoth 1929 novel. The film begins with Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), the protagonist and tragic anti-hero, being released from prison on a manslaughter charge. From there Fassbinder’s fantasia on Doblin’s narrative follows Biberkopf through the dark underbelly of 1920s Berlin as the country is still reeling from the aftermath of WWI and with the rise of the Third Reich just around the corner. Of special interest is Biberkopf’s psychosexual infatuation with his criminal lowlife partner Reinhold, which is thoroughly explored in Fassbinder’s daring experimental epilogue. This ranks alongside of Fritz Lang’s M as one of the all-time great German movies.

Germany, Pale Mother (Sanders-Brahms, 1980)


Helma Sanders-Brahms’ controversial Germany, Pale Mother was probably the New German Cinema film that confronted the Nazi era (a topic then still taboo) most directly. It tells the story of the lives of ordinary people — primarily a man, Hans (Ernst Jacobi), and a woman, Lene (Eva Mattes) — based on the director’s own parents, and how their lives and relationships are torn apart by World War II. One powerful montage sequence shows the couple’s daughter, Anna, being born during an air raid (complete with documentary footage), which gives the film something of an allegorical flavor, but this is mostly a realistic and observational portrait that feels as if it were made as a form of therapy by someone intent on better understanding their parents’ generation and thus their country’s history. Mattes, a veteran of films by Herzog and Fassbinder, is phenomenal in the lead role.

Palermo or Wolfsburg (Schroeter, 1980)


The one and only film I’ve seen by the esteemed Werner Schroeter is this 1980 masterwork that has left me eager to fill in on more. Palermo or Wolfsburg is a three-hour movie about a Sicilian laborer named Nicola who moves to Germany seeking better opportunities in life. He gets a job in a Volkswagen factory, embarks on an ill-fated love affair and tragically ends up committing a double homicide. For most of its length this is an impressively naturalistic culture-clash drama that captures the feelings of homesickness and alienation that should be familiar to anyone who has spent a prolonged time in a country far from home. Then, in the murder trial that serves as the climax, Schroeter daringly switches modes to offer something more subjective and surreal, allowing his penchant for flamboyant, experimental cinema and his side career as an opera director to come to the fore. They just don’t make ’em like this any more.

My Blog is Three-Years-Old


My blog is exactly three years old today. During its brief life, White City Cinema has been viewed over 300,000 times. I can’t fathom who the hell has been doing this viewing but I am deeply humbled that anyone has ever visited my little corner of cyperspace — even if it was only a Google image search that brought you here. And so, to celebrate my blog’s third birthday, I’ve decided to do a little something special. (Actually, I decided to do this months ago when I realized it was going to be a very time-consuming endeavor and I would need a big head start.) Earlier this year, I realized that my system of rating movies was inconsistent. For years I’ve been rating films on a scale of one to ten,, for my long reviews, but I’ve graded others on a scale from A to F, report card-style (typically for capsule reviews and film festival previews). Still other movies have gone unrated altogether. So I have gone back through all of the posts on this site and affixed a consistent numerical rating to every “new” film that I have either reviewed (whether in long form or in capsule) or that has appeared on one of my “best of” lists since I started blogging. Interestingly, this process has caused me to re-evaluate many of my original judgements, which has further caused me to reshuffle the order of some of the best of lists, revise some old reviews and even write a few new ones. Clicking on the title of each film below will take you to the review/best of list/filmmaker interview in which I originally offered my thoughts on the work in question. So please feel free to click on as many of the below links as your heart desires in order to help me justify creating this Borgesian labyrinth. Enjoy!

The master key to my numerical rating system:

10: A high-water mark for cinema as an art form.
9.6 – 9.9: A deathless masterpiece.
9.0 – 9.5: A must-see experience on the big screen and a film that belongs in the home video library of every cinephile.
8.5 – 8.9: A great film. See it on the big screen at all costs; and definitely worth revisiting via streaming or as a home video rental.
8.0 – 8.4: Very good. See it on the big screen if possible — though one viewing may be enough.
7.5 – 7.9: Good. You need not rush out and see it in the theater. Definitely catch up to it via streaming or on video eventually though.
7.0 – 7.4: Pretty good. Do you have a friend/spouse/lover who really wants to see this? If so, it’s probably worth catching with them.
6.5 – 6.9: If this was an ambitious film or one you had high expectations for, you may be disappointed. An obscure/lesser known indie film that falls in this range could be a pleasant surprise though.
6.0 – 6.4: A mixed bag but worth catching if you stumble upon it while channel surfing at home and have nothing better to do.
5.5 – 5.9: Average. Worth catching if you stumble upon it while channel surfing when you’re visiting family members and it’s raining outside.
5.0 – 5.4: This definitely didn’t accomplish what it set out to do. There may be something morally/aesthetically objectionable here as well. But it may not be entirely a waste of time.
4.5 – 4.9: I actively disliked this film and regret having watched it.
0 – 4.4: This picture deserves to walk alone, tinkle a little bell and cry “Unclean, unclean!”


Devil’s Town (Paskaljevic, Serbia, 2010) – 4.2
Tuesday (Kornilios, Greece, 2010) – 4.3

The Last Exorcism (Stamm, USA, 2010) – 4.5
Rhino Season (Ghobadi, Iran/Turkey, 2012) – 4.5
Evil Dead (Alvarez, USA, 2013) – 4.5
Room 237 (Ascher, USA, 2012) – 4.5
Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (Heydon, Canada/Scotland, 2011) – 4.6
The Great Beauty (Sorrentino, Italy, 2013) – 4.6
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Jackson, New Zealand/USA, 2012) – 4.7
St. Vincent (Melfi, USA, 2014) – 4.7
Amour (Haneke, Austria/France, 2012) – 4.8
The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard, USA, 2011) – 4.8
Lincoln (Spielberg, USA, 2012) – 4.9

The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best (O’Nan, USA, 2011) – 5.0
David Wants to Fly (Sieveking, Germany, 2010) – 5.1
The Last Rites of Joe May (Maggio, USA, 2011) – 5.2
Fort Tilden (Rogers/Violet-Bliss, USA, 2014) – 5.3
The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, USA, 2012) – 5.4

Argo (Affleck, USA, 2012) – 5.5
Go Goa Gone (D.K./Nidimoru, India, 2013) – 5.6
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlen, USA, 2012) – 5.7
At Berkeley (Wiseman, USA, 2013) – 5.8
The Midnight After (Chan, Hong Kong, 2014) – 5.9

The Man from the Future (Torres, Brazil, 2011) – 6.0
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Nixey, USA, 2010) – 6.1
The World is Ours (Sanchez, Spain, 2012) – 6.1
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Bekmambetov, USA, 2012) – 6.2
Chicago Heights (Nearing, USA, 2009) – 6.2
The Descendants (Payne, USA, 2011) – 6.2
Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA, 2012) – 6.3
Philomena (Frears, UK/USA, 2013) – 6.3
Control Tower (Miki, Japan, 2011) – 6.3
A Lonely Place to Die (Gilbey, UK, 2011) – 6.3
Stockholm Stories (Fahlen, Sweden, 2013) – 6.4
Caterpillar (Wakamatsu, Japan, 2010) – 6.4
12 Years a Slave (McQueen, USA, 2013) – 6.4
Whiplash (Chazelle, USA, 2014) – 6.4
Sofia and the Stubborn Man (Burgos, Colombia, 2012) – 6.4

Her (Jonze, USA, 2013) – 6.5
Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt, USA, 2010) – 6.5
The Artist (Hazanavicius, France, 2011) – 6.5
Bridesmaids (Feig, USA, 2011) – 6.5
Madly in Love (Van Mieghem, Belgium, 2010) – 6.5
John Dies at the End (Coscarelli, USA, 2012) – 6.5
On Tour (Amalric, France, 2010) – 6.6
Skyfall (Mendes, UK, 2012) – 6.6
Love Stalker (Glasson/MacLean, USA, 2011) – 6.6
Life During Wartime (Solondz, USA, 2010) – 6.6
Paris-Manhattan (Lellouche, France, 2012) – 6.6
Child’s Pose (Netzer, Romania, 2013) – 6.6
Pacific Rim (Del Toro, USA, 2013) – 6.6
Rabies (Keshales/Papushado, Israel, 2010) – 6.7
The Men of Dodge City (Rao, USA, 2012) – 6.7
The Stuart Hall Project (Akomfrah, Enland, 2013) – 6.7
The Town (Affleck, USA, 2010) – 6.7
Creep (Brice, USA, 2014) – 6.7
Winter’s Bone (Granik, USA, 2010) – 6.7
The Tree of Life (Malick, USA, 2011) – 6.7
Life Itself (James, USA, 2014) – 6.7
Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada, 2012) – 6.7
Gravity (Cuaron, USA, 2013) – 6.8
F*ckload of Scotch Tape (Grant, USA, 2012) – 6.8
Pieces of Me (Lemesle, France, 2014) – 6.8
La Sirga (Vega, Colombia, 2012) – 6.8
A Prophet (Audiard, France, 2010) – 6.8
The Girls in the Band (Chaikin, USA, 2011) – 6.8
Consuming Spirits (Sullivan, USA, 2012) – 6.8
The Innkeepers (West, USA, 2011) – 6.8
The Chaser (Na, S. Korea, 2008) – 6.8
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Amirpour, USA, 2014) – 6.8
The Word (Kazejak, Poland, 2013) – 6.9
American Hustle (Russell, USA, 2013) – 6.9
Rango (Verbinski, USA, 2012) – 6.9
Creative Writing (McClellan, USA, 2014) – 6.9
Faust (Sokurov, Germany/Russia, 2011) – 6.9
Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France, 2013) – 6.9
The Final Member (Bekhor/Math, Canada/Iceland, 2012) – 6.9
The Mafia Only Kills in Summer (Diliberto, Italy, 1973) – 6.9
Jauja (Alonso, Denmark/Argentina, 2014) – 6.9

Contracted (England, USA, 2013) – 7.0
The Girls on Liberty Street (Rangel, USA) – 7.0
Ida (Pawlikowski, Poland, 2013) – 7.0
Elena (Costa, Brazil, 2012) – 7.0
To Rome With Love (Allen, USA/Italy, 2012) – 7.0
Carnage (Polanski, France, 2011) – 7.0
Happy People (Vasyukov/Herzog, Germany/Russia) – 7.0
Hereafter (Eastwood, USA, 2011) – 7.0
The Academy of Muses (Guerin, Spain, 2015) – 7.0
Mad (Putka, USA, 2016) – 7.0
The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, UK, 2011) – 7.1
Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jacobsen, Norway, 2011) – 7.1
I Saw the Devil (Kim, S. Korea, 2011) – 7.1
The Zebra (Leon, Mexico, 2011) – 7.1
Ne Me Quitte Pas (Bakker/Van Koevorden, Belgium/Holland, 2013) – 7.1
The Longest Distance (Pinto, Venezuela, 2013) – 7.1
The Way He Looks (Ribeiro, Brazil, 2014) – 7.1
Those Happy Years (Luchetti, Italy, 2013) – 7.1
Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA, 2011) – 7.1
Beneath the Harvest Sky (Gaudet/Pullapilly, USA, 2013) – 7.1
Starred Up (Mackenzie, UK, 2013) – 7.2
Stinking Heaven (Silver, USA, 2015) – 7.2
Heart Beats (Dolan, Canada, 2011) – 7.2
A Separation (Farhadi, Iran, 2011) – 7.2
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright, USA/Canada, 2010) – 7.2
The Academy of Muses (Guerin, Spain, 2015) – 7.2
O.J.: Made in America (Edelman, USA, 2016) – 7.2
Wajda (Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia, 2012) – 7.2
Being 17 (Techine, 2016) – 7.2
It Felt Like Love (Hittman, USA, 2013) – 7.2
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, France/USA, 2010) – 7.3
Punk’s Not Dead (Blazevski, Macedonia, 2011) – 7.3
Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran, 2011) – 7.3
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alfredson, UK, 2011) – 7.3
True Grit (Coen/Coen, USA, 2010) – 7.3
The Ward (Carpenter, USA, 2010) – 7.3
Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2012) – 7.3
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Stern/Sundberg, USA, 2011) – 7.3
It Follows (Mitchell, USA, 2014) – 7.3
Hannah Arendt (Von Trotta, Germany, 2012) – 7.3
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, USA/Sweden, 2011) – 7.4
Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran, 2013) – 7.4
Trapped (Shahbazi, Iran, 2013) – 7.4
The Bling Ring (Coppola, USA, 2013) – 7.4
Silver Linings Playbook (Russell, USA, 2012) – 7.4
Oslo, August 31st (Trier, Norway, 2011) – 7.4
Lebanon (Maoz, Israel, 2009) – 7.4
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Stephan, Lebanon/Egypt, 2012) – 7.4
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Thompson, USA, 2012) – 7.4
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA, 2013) – 7.4

Grabbers (Wright, Ireland, 2012) – 7.5
A Love (Hernandez, Argentina, 2011) – 7.5
What Now? Remind Me (Pinto, Portugal, 2013) – 7.5
Eden (Hansen-Love, France, 2014) – 7.5
Nebraska (Payne, 2013) – 7.5
Unforgivable (Techine, France, 2011) – 7.5
The Last Sentence (Troell, Sweden, 2012) – 7.5
The Phantom Father (Georgescu, Romania, 2011) – 7.5
Casa Grande (Barbosa, Brazil, 2014) – 7.5
Damsels in Distress (Stillman, USA, 2011) – 7.5
Being 17 (Techine, France) – 7.6
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, USA/UK, 2016) – 7.6
Malaria (Shahbazi, Iran, 2016) – 7.6
The Arbalest (Pinney, USA, 2016) – 7.6
Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson, Canada/Germany, 2012) – 7.6
All the Women (Barroso, Spain, 2013) – 7.6
Sun Don’t Shine (Seimetz, USA, 2012) – 7.6
Museum Hours (Cohen, USA/Austria) – 7.6
A Simple Life (Hui, Hong Kong, 2011) – 7.6
Killer Joe (Friedkin, USA, 2011) – 7.6
The Conjuring (Wan, USA, 2013) – 7.7
Anina (Soderguit, Uruguay, 2013) – 7.7
Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson, USA, 2012) – 7.7
The World of Goopi and Bagha (Ranade, India, 2013) – 7.7
Of Horses and Men (Erlingsson, Iceland, 2013) – 7.7
Gone Girl (Fincher, USA, 2014) – 7.7
Venus in Fur (Polanski, France, 2013) – 7.7
The Color Wheel (Perry, USA, 2011) – 7.7
Metalhead (Bragason, Icelend, 2013) – 7.7
Miss Julie (Ullmann, Norway/Ireland, 2014) – 7.7
The Unspeakable Act (Sallitt, USA, 2012) – 7.8
Shoals (Bass, USA, 2014) – 7.8
Foxcatcher (Miller, USA, 2014) – 7.8
Sunset Song (Davies, UK, 2015) – 7.8
Embrace of the Serpent (Guerra, Colombia, 2015) – 7.8
Under the Shadow (Anvari, UK/Iran, 2015) – 7.8
Cameraperson (Johnson, USA, 2016) – 7.8
Harmonium (Fukada, Japan, 2016) – 7.8
The Fits (Holmer, USA, 2015) – 7.8
Sweet Dreams (Bellocchio, Italy/France, 2016) – 7.8
Paterson (Jarmusch, USA, 2016) – 7.9
N: The Madness of Reason (Kruger, Belgium/Ivory Coast, 2014) – 7.9
Women He’s Undressed (Armstrong, Australia, 2015) – 7.9
Shaun the Sheep (Burton/Starzak, UK, 2015) – 7.9
Top Five (Rock, USA, 2014) – 7.9
Experimenter (Almereyda, USA, 2015) – 7.9
Soul (Chung, Taiwan, 2013) – 7.9
Manakamana (Spray/Velez, USA/Nepal, 2013) – 7.9
The Last Time I Saw Macao (Guerra da Mata/Rodrigues, Portugal/Macao, 2012) – 7.9
Sleeping Sickness (Kohler, Germany/Cameroon, 2011) – 7.9

Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea, 2013) – 8.0
Hugo (Scorsese, USA, 2011) – 8.0
Marley (Macdonald, USA/UK, 2012) – 8.0
Meeting Leila (Yaraghi, Iran, 2012) – 8.0
Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones, USA, 2015) – 8.0
We are the Best! (Moodysson, Sweden, 2013) – 8.0
Our Children (Lafosse, Belgium, 2012) – 8.0
Three (To, Hong Kong, 2016) – 8.0
Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland, 2011) – 8.0
The Rover (Michod, Australia, 2014) – 8.0
While We’re Young (Baumbach, USA, 2014) – 8.1
Welcome to New York (Ferrara, USA, 2013) – 8.1
Listen Up Philip (Perry, USA, 2014) – 8.1
Gemma Bovery (Fontaine, France/UK, 2014) – 8.1
The Handmaiden (Park, S. Korea, 2016) – 8.1
Heaven Knows What (Safdie/Safdie, USA, 2015) – 8.1
Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012) – 8.1
Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – 8.1
Citizenfour (Poitras, USA/Germany, 2014) – 8.1
The World’s End (Wright, UK, 2013) – 8.1
Viola (Pineiro, Argentina, 2012) – 8.2
Another Year (Leigh, UK, 2010) – 8.2
Around a Small Mountain (Rivette, France, 2009) – 8.2
White Material (Denis, France/Cameroon, 2010) – 8.2
Things the Way They Are (Lavanderos, Chile, 2012) – 8.2
The Hateful Eight (Tarantino, USA, 2015) – 8.2
Prometheus (Scott, USA, 2012) – 8.2
Carlos (Assayas, France/Germany, 2010) – 8.2
Mildred Pierce (Haynes, USA, 2011) – 8.2
Locke (Knight, UK, 2013) – 8.2
Snowpiercer (Bong, S. Korea, 2013) – 8.3
The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China, 2014) – 8.3
Bird People (Ferran, France, 2014) – 8.3
The Day He Arrives (Hong, S. Korea, 2011) – 8.3
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA/Germany, 2014) – 8.3
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, USA, 2015) – 8.3
13 Assassins (Miike, Japan, 2010) – 8.3
Straight Outta Compton (Gray, USA, 2015) – 8.3
Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA, 2012) – 8.3
Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA, 2010) – 8.3
Everyone Else (Ade, Germany, 2009) – 8.4
Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France, 2014) – 8.4
Midnight in Paris (Allen, USA/France, 2011) – 8.4
In the Underground (Song, China, 2015) – 8.4
Queen of Earth (Perry, USA, 2015) – 8.4
Born to Be Blue (Budreau, Canada/USA, 2015) – 8.4
Fire at Sea (Rosi, Italy, 2016) – 8.4
Long Way North (Maye, Holland/France, 2016) – 8.4
The Comedy (Alverson, USA, 2012) – 8.4
In Transit (Maysles/True/Usui/Walker/Wu, USA, 2015) – 8.4

Under Electric Clouds (German Jr., Russia, 2015) – 8.5
The Mend (Magary, USA, 2014) – 8.5
Nahid (Panahandeh, Iran, 2015) – 8.5
Force Majeure (Ostlund, Sweden, 2014) – 8.5
Sully (Eastwood, USA, 2016) – 8.5
Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013) – 8.5
L’attesa (Messina, Italy/France) – 8.5
Tower (Maitland, USA) – 8.5
Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010) – 8.5
The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 8.5
Journey to the West (Tsai, France/Taiwan, 2014) – 8.6
In Jackson Heights (Wiseman, USA, 2015) – 8.6
Margaret (Lonergan, USA/UK, 2011) – 8.6
The Measure of a Man (Brize, France, 2015) – 8.6
Hail, Caesar! (Coen/Coen, USA, 2016) – 8.6
Viaje (Fabrega, Costa Rica, 2015) – 8.6
Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA, 2013) – 8.6
Drug War (To, Hong Kong/China, 2012) – 8.6
Operation Zanahoria (Buchichio, Uruguay, 2014) – 8.6
My Friend Victoria (Civeyrac, France, 2014) – 8.6
Barbara (Petzold, Germany, 2012) – 8.7
Amour Fou (Hausner, Austria/Germany, 2014) – 8.7
The Blue Room (Amalric, France, 2014) – 8.7
Actress (Greene, USA, 2014) – 8.7
Cosmopolis (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2012) – 8.7
Leviathan (Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014) – 8.7
The Love Witch (Biller, USA, 2016) – 8.7
Staying Vertical (Guiraudie, France, 2016) – 8.7
The Other Side (Minervini, Italy/France, 2015) – 8.7
Results (Bujalski, USA, 2015) – 8.7
Creepy (Kurosawa, Japan, 2016) – 8.8
Krisha (Shults, USA, 2015) – 8.8
Kate Plays Christine (Greene, USA, 2016) – 8.8
Life of Riley (Resnais, France, 2014) – 8.8
The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA, 2013) – 8.8
Tangerine (Baker, USA, 2015) – 8.8
Kaili Blues (Bi, China, 2015) – 8.8
Everybody Wants Some (Linklater, USA, 2016 – 8.8
Things to Come (Hansen-Love, France, 2016) – 8.8
La Sapienza (Green, Italy/France, 2014) – 8.8
Neighbouring Sounds (Mendonça, Brazil, 2012) – 8.9
Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey, 2014) – 8.9
Mountains May Depart (Jia, China, 2015) – 8.9
Jealousy (Garrel, France, 2013) – 8.9
Tabu (Gomes, Portugal, 2012) – 8.9
Taxi (Panahi, Iran, 2015) – 8.9
Cemetery of Splendor (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2015) – 8.9
The Immigrant (Gray, USA, 2013) – 8.9
Bernie (Linklater, USA, 2011) – 8.9
Exhibition (Hogg, UK, 2013) – 8.9
Brooklyn (Crowkey, UK, 2015) – 8.9

Top of the Lake (Campion/Davis, New Zealand/Australia, 2013) – 9.0
Poetry (Lee, S. Korea, 2010) – 9.0
Inside Out (Docter/Del Carmen, 2015) – 9.0
House of Pleasures (Bonello, France, 2011) – 9.0
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France, 2012) – 9.0
Love & Friendship (Stillman, USA/UK, 2016) – 9.0
The Treasure (Porumboiu, Romania, 2015) – 9.0
Upstream Color (Carruth, USA, 2013) – 9.0
Twenty Cigarettes (Benning, USA, 2011) – 9.0
Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark/UK, 2013) – 9.0
The Wonders (Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014) – 9.1
The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong/China, 2013) – 9.1
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata, Japan, 2013) – 9.1
J. Edgar (Eastwood, USA, 2011) – 9.1
The Wailing (Na, S. Korea, 2016) – 9.1
The Heart of a Dog (Anderson, USA, 2015) – 9.1
Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2012) – 9.1
Stray Dogs (Tsai, Taiwan, 2013) – 9.1
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia, 2013) – 9.1
Magical Girl (Vermut, Spain, 2014) – 9.2
The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, Canada, 2015) – 9.2
Cosmos (Zulawski, France/Portugal, 2015) – 9.2
The Illinois Parables (Stratman, USA, 2016) – 9.2
Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012) – 9.2
Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK, 2014) – 9.2
The Master (Anderson, USA, 2012) – 9.2
Bastards (Denis, France, 2013) – 9.2
Death in the Terminal (Shemesh/Sudry, Israel, 2016) – 9.2
The Son of Joseph (Green, France, 2016) – 9.2
The Ornithologist (Rodrigues, Portugal, 2016) – 9.3
The Beguiled (Coppola, USA, 2017) – 9.3
The Babadook (Kent, Australia, 2014) – 9.3
Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA, 2013) – 9.3
A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, Canada/Germany, 2011) – 9.3
Moonlight (Jenkins, USA, 2016) – 9.3
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan, 2012) – 9.3
Film Socialisme (Godard, France, 2010) – 9.3
Elle (Verhoeven, France, 2016) – 9.3
Aquarius (Mendonca, Brazil, 2016) – 9.3
Arabian Nights Vol. 1 – 3 (Gomes, Portugal, 2015) – 9.3
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, USA, 2003/2014) – 9.4
Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, USA, 2012) – 9.4
Hard to Be a God (German, Russia, 2013) – 9.4
The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany, 2013) – 9.4
Something in the Air (Assayas, France/UK/Italy, 2012) – 9.4
Wild Grass (Resnais, France, 2009) – 9.4
Before Midnight (Linklater, USA, 2013) – 9.4
Phoenix (Petzold, Germany, 2014) – 9.4
No Home Movie (Akerman, Belgium, 2015) – 9.4
Slack Bay (Dumont, France, 2016) – 9.4

The Lost City of Z (Gray, USA, 2016) – 9.5
Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece, 2015) – 9.5
In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France, 2015) – 9.5
This Is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011) – 9.5
Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauriania, 2014) – 9.5
The Skin I Live In (Almodovar, Spain, 2011) – 9.5
Under the Skin (Glazer, UK, 2013) – 9.5
Shutter Island (Scorsese, USA, 2010) – 9.5
Horse Money (Costa, Portugal, 2014) – 9.6
The Wind Rises (Miyazaki, Japan, 2013) – 9.6
Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, S. Korea, 2015) – 9.6
Malgre la Nuit (Grandrieux, France, 2015) – 9.6
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, Australia, 2015) – 9.6
In the Shadows (Arslan, Germany, 2010) – 9.6
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA, 2012) – 9.6
The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011) – 9.7
Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie, France, 2013) – 9.7
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA, 2013) – 9.7
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey, 2011) – 9.7
My Golden Days (Desplechin, France, 2015) – 9.7
The Ghost Writer (Polanski, UK/Germany, 2010) – 9.7
Norte, the End of History (Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – 9.7
A Quiet Passion (Davies, UK/USA, 2016) – 9.8
Almayer’s Folly (Akerman, France/Malaysia, 2011) – 9.8
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010) – 9.8
The Social Network (Fincher, USA, 2010) – 9.8
Li’l Quinquin (Dumont, France, 2014) – 9.8
Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany, 2016) – 9.8
Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong, 2011) – 9.9
Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, Portugal, 2010) – 9.9
Inherent Vice (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 9.9
A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013) – 9.9
The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal, 2010) – 9.9

Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012) – 10
Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014) – 10
The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan, 2015) – 10
Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy, 2010) – 10
Goodbye to Language (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2014) – 10
Twin Peaks (Lynch, USA, 2017) – 10


Postscript (Feb. 2014): I’ve decided to continually update this page by providing numerical ratings for each new movie I see. Only the titles that I saw at the time I wrote the original post, however, will contain clickable links that will take readers to the corresponding reviews

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Menace II Society (Hughes/Hughes)
2. Pacific Rim (Del Toro)
3. The Howling (Dante)
4. Alien 3 (Fincher)
5. California Split (Altman)
6. Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance (Hercules)
7. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
8. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonça)
9. Otto is a Rhino (Kainz)
10. The Legend of Sarila (Savard)

Now Playing: Pacific Rim and The Conjuring

Pacific Rim
dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2013, USA

Rating: 6.8

The Conjuring
dir. James Wan, 2013, USA

Rating: 7.9



Now playing in theaters everywhere is Pacific Rim, the eighth feature film by Mexican-born, Hollywood-based genre specialist Guillermo del Toro. While I admire all of del Toro’s movies to a greater or lesser extent (with the exception of Mimic, which I’ve never actually seen, mainly because I know he never had complete creative control over it — not even in the inevitable “director’s cut” issued recently on Blu-ray), it unfortunately seems inarguable to me that Pacific Rim is his least interesting work to date. While Pacific Rim is pretty good for what it is, “what it is” in this case, a robots vs. monsters extravaganza in the Transformers mold, is, like the song says, my idea of nothing to do. Sure, there’s plenty to recommend it: purely as an exercise in “world building,” I can appreciate any fictional universe with a mythology as elaborate and detailed as this: it takes place in a near-future where giant sea-monsters known as “kaiju” wreak havoc on earth, and a multinational government coalition has consequently created giant robots known as “jaegers” in order to combat them. Intriguingly, each jaeger must be piloted by two humans who are telepathically linked to one other (in order to share the “neural load”), a conceit that leads to the film’s niftiest visuals: rapid-fire montages in which each jaeger sees the other’s life in flashback. Also in Pacific Rim‘s favor: the fight scenes are spatially/temporally coherent and, del Toro being the humanist that he is, the film is refreshingly absent of cynicism (neither of which can be said about Transformers or most other contemporary blockbusters).

Having said all that . . . Pacific Rim is still too long, too loud and too cliche-ridden. The wooden lead characters, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Riko Kinkuchi), are jaeger pilots who embark on a requisite unconvincing love story and prove as uninteresting as the romantic leads in an MGM Marx brothers’ film. It becomes obvious pretty soon where del Toro’s real interest lies: with the nerdy scientist “frienemies” played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, and a shady black market organ dealer played with relish by del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman. But these characters are, unfortunately, too small a part of the movie overall. Del Toro’s most personal touches (Day’s character is described as a “kaiju groupie” and even has the beasts tattooed on his forearms) feel like little splashes of color here and there on an otherwise large, impersonal canvas. By contrast, in the massively underrated Hellboy II, del Toro’s previous feature, those touches were the whole show: there is nothing in Pacific Rim to rival Hellboy II‘s exhilaratingly eccentric troll-market sequence. Or its most outrageous lines of dialogue (“I’m not a baby, I’m a tumor!”). There’s nothing quite as sweet or goofy as Hellboy II‘s unexpected use of a Barry Manilow song. Or as poignant and strangely beautiful as the scene depicting the death of a giant plant monster. Or lots of other things. Instead we have big, dumb, loud battle scenes (including an unnecessary final battle that follows what feels like the film’s logical climax) between jaegers and kaiju that take place at night and in the rain so that even the creature design, usually a highlight in del Toro, is disappointingly obscured by darkness and murk. We also have an inordinate number of close-ups of Kinkuchi, obviously calculated to appeal to the all-important Asian market, and Idris Elba as a jaeger commander who delivers a rousing sound-bite version of Henry V‘s St. Crispin’s Day speech.


The somewhat sad truth is that if Guillermo del Toro had never been born, the movie Pacific Rim would have still been made, albeit co-written and directed by someone else. And it would have still been more or less the same film that I just saw. I would prefer it if del Toro, an imaginative visual stylist and a natural born filmmaker if there ever was one, would show me that which without him I would otherwise never have seen. When I saw del Toro introduce a screening of his 2001 Spanish ghost story The Devil’s Backbone at the Chicago International Film Festival few years back, he made the surprising confession that this little-seen film was, along with his much-lauded 2006 Spanish Civil War-set fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, his own personal favorite of his works. (It’s worth noting that he said this in front of Ron Perlman, who has starred in virtually all of del Toro’s films except for those two movies.) If del Toro is willing to acknowledge that his Hollywood work is almost necessarily compromised, one wonders why he’s determined to play the Hollywood game for such high stakes (the budget for Pacific Rim was allegedly $180,000,000): is it to rebound from the negative press surrounding his failure to realize several other projects, including The Hobbit? Is it to prove himself a commercially viable director in the hopes of getting his long-cherished adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain’s of Madness finally greenlit? Whatever the case, I’ve still got my fingers crossed for his next project, a horror film entitled Crimson Peak starring Jessica Chastain, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mia Wasikowska. Del Toro has described it as a deliberate attempt to do one of his “Spanish-language films in English.” Here’s hoping.

While one could certainly do much, much worse than choosing to see Pacific Rim from among this season’s popcorn movies, one could also do much better: my own pick for the Hollywood film of the summer is James Wan’s unexpectedly good and genuinely scary The Conjuring, now also playing in theaters everywhere. A haunted house scenario that improves upon Insidious, Wan’s formidable 2010 hit about “astral projection,” The Conjuring is yet another allegedly “true story” in the Exorcist/Amityville Horror mold that is nonetheless fully redeemed by the director’s richly atmospheric mise-en-scene. Wan and cinematographer John Leonetti use a constantly prowling camera to convey a palpable sense of creeping dread, and the Val Lewton-esque use of shadows and offscreen space is never less than masterful: gore is almost entirely absent and yet the audience with whom I saw it let out more than a few collective screams over the course of its two-hour running time. I personally felt scared, very scared, less than two minutes into the movie, during a short prologue involving an unbelievably creepy-looking doll that is surely one of the most unsettling props ever created for a horror film. And I continued to feel that way throughout (barring, of course, the cliched exorcism climax — can’t Hollywood find something other than Christian iconography to fight demonic possession with?). Adding to the credibility is a first-rate cast that includes Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as the parents of the haunted family and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as their ghost-hunter doppelgangers, not to mention a level of period detail (the events take place in 1971) that approaches the Fincher-esque.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
2. Breathless (Godard)
3. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger)
4. Red Angel (Masumura)
5. The Conjuring (Wan)
6. Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol)
7. Alien (Scott)
8. The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi)
9. Service (Mendoza)
10. Rear Window (Hitchcock)

The Decline of the DVD and the Rise of the CGI Spectacle


One of the most provocative commentaries about the landscape of the new Hollywood arrived last month in the form of a Salon article by Lynda Obst entitled “Hollywood’s Completely Broken.” The thrust of Obst’s troubling piece, an excerpt from her forthcoming book Sleepless in Hollywood, is that the near-ubiquity of big-budget CGI-laden spectacle films, almost all of which are sequels, remakes or reboots, is directly attributable to the sharp decline in DVD sales that began about five years ago with the advent of online streaming. Not merely another tired think-piece about the “death of cinema” (which is usually nothing more than a writer’s thinly disguised lament for his or her lost youth — whether that occurred in any decade from the 1960s through the 1990s), Obst, a movie producer by profession, uses actual interviews with a Hollywood studio executive to bolster her argument about the film industry: the major studios, which have long relied on profits generated by the sales of physical media, have had to readjust by making more movies aimed at the international theatrical market. Every studio wants every film they make to earn a billion dollars in ticket sales, especially since the global success of Avatar in 2009, and they’re now willing to routinely spend upwards of 200 million dollars in order to make that happen.

Unfortunately for those of us who care about cinema, this also means that there has been a disheartening uniformity to the most recent spate of Hollywood blockbusters: the “plot” of every movie is now more than ever merely an excuse to blow stuff up, the movies cannot exceed the PG-13 rating (which, of course, means a total absence of sex, nudity and even the word “fuck”), there can be nothing in these movies that might be deemed politically inflammatory, and the movies need to be simple enough, in every conceivable way in terms of form and content, to be understood by teenagers in every country around the world (“Say, how well do you think these one-liners will go over with Malay subtitles?”). And this is to say nothing of Hollywood’s annoying recent trend of “courting” the massive Chinese audience through superfluous scenes set in China or featuring Chinese characters or Mandarin dialogue — examples of which can be found in everything from The Dark Knight to Skyfall to Iron Man 3 to the forthcoming Transformers 4. In short, Hollywood has never been more risk-averse than it is today.

It has also become increasingly common to hear cultural commentators and ordinary folks alike remark that “the best storytelling has migrated to television.” While I’ve greatly enjoyed recent television endeavors by some auteurs more commonly associated with the “big screen” — including Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes and Jane Campion — I’m alarmed at how many people I know treat this perceived cultural shift as a foregone conclusion. A lot of intelligent adults, the kind who used to go to the theater regularly, have virtually conceded that the movie theater has become a place primarily for teenagers and children (and “children of all ages,” as the saying goes). Even more bizarre, I have more than a couple friends who have attended the latest round of Hollywood blockbusters in the theater but haven’t yet caught up to Richard Linklater’s masterpiece Before Midnight, in spite of the fact that they are acknowledged fans of Linklater’s other work. I’m assuming they figure that, in a world of CGI spectacles, a character-based romantic comedy consisting solely of scenes of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy talking to each other can wait to be seen on their small screens at home. And yet it would be a tragedy if films like Before Midnight (which is currently underperforming at the box office, even considering its small budget), are eventually relegated to television entirely. I would argue that the chief pleasures of Linklater’s new movie are exquisitely cinematic and actually do need to be seen on the biggest screen possible in order to be fully appreciated.

After recently taking two Film History classes on field trips to see Before Midnight in the theater, I was astonished to hear many of my students say they felt “immersed” in the world of the movie and they felt that it was specifically Linklater’s use of long takes and lack of cutting (in contrast to the rapid editing of contemporary Hollywood action movies) that made them feel as if they were “in the scene” with the characters. There is no doubt in my mind that the relationship of the size of the screen to the audience is precisely what makes Before Midnight such a transformative experience for many viewers. I would also argue that, in a similar vein, the film’s relative dearth of close-ups makes such shots all the more impactful when they do occasionally appear on a large screen. My favorite scene in this talky movie is one without any dialogue at all: after the big blow-out argument in which Delpy’s Celine storms out of their romantic-getaway hotel room, Hawke’s Jesse looks around the room as Linklater cuts between close-ups of Jesse’s face and shots of — in order — a full cup of tea, the hotel room door, a bottle and two full glasses of wine, and their unslept-in hotel-room bed. For me, seeing that close-up of Celine’s undrunk cup of tea on a giant cinema screen feels both momentous and heartbreaking, qualities with which I don’t expect it to register on my home television (even on Blu-ray and with a 42-inch screen).

I recently half-joked to a cinephile friend on facebook that I considered myself “a warrior in a cultural battle” in the act of taking my students to see Before Midnight in the theater. Yet surely everyone who cares about cinema, myself included, could be doing more to put our money where our mouths are by diversifying in terms of the kinds of movies we choose to see in the theater — instead of just staying at home and bitching about how Hollywood is producing garbage. And I’m not by any means calling for a boycott of Hollywood blockbusters (though I do think they were a lot easier to swallow when they weren’t being released every single week, and seeing them felt more like an option rather than an enforced duty); I did, after all, recently enjoy Monsters University and I’m looking forward to catching up soon with Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s robots vs. monsters epic. I’m merely suggesting that movie lovers need to make it a point of going to the theater regularly and that the continued theatrical success of small and medium-budget movies (of independent, foreign and Hollywood origin) will be vital to the overall health of our film culture in the future.

100_2363 Me and my Intro to Film class from Oakton Community College before a recent screening of Before Midnight in Evanston, IL.

Happy Bastille Day from White City Cinema

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bigger Than Life (Ray)
2. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
3. Rome Open City (Rossellini)
4. Monsters University (Scanlon)
5. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
6. Chocolat (Denis)
7. Slaughter High (Dugdale/Ezra/Litten)
8. Secret Things (Brisseau)
9. Bernie (Linklater)
10. Dark Skies (Stewart)

He Said/She Said Director Profile: Sofia Coppola

Following our discussion of John Carpenter, Jillian McKeown (author of and I focus on Sofia Coppola for our second He Said/She Said Director Profile.


JM: This is being written just a few hours after seeing Sofia Coppola’s movie, The Bling Ring. Thinking back over those few hours and over her entire body of work, I am noticing recurring themes that thread throughout all of her films that draw me to her as a writer and director. These are namely the music, and the humanity and universal appeal of the stories and characters. I’d like to start off by discussing the latter. In all of Sofia’s films (see complete filmography at the end of this piece), she taps into experiences and emotions that are universal to everyone, even if the character may be more grandiose than the typical person. For example, in Marie Antoinette, you can identify with the queen’s feelings of separation, loneliness, and weight of responsibility. In The Bling Ring, she demonstrates how in American culture, there is a lust to be “known” and to do this, it is necessary to shroud yourself in tangible consumerism. Are there any films of hers that you feel any special kinship towards?

MGS: I think I feel more of a kinship to The Bling Ring than any of the others, for reasons I will elaborate on later. But first, I want to point out that I think it’s interesting you say Coppola’s films are “universal” while paradoxically also being about characters who may be “grandiose.” I generally agree with this but the most common complaint that I’ve heard about her work is that she only deals with the problems of people who are privileged. In other words, “Why should we care that a rich movie star staying at a five-star hotel in Tokyo feels ‘alienated’?” My response to this is “Why shouldn’t we be able to relate to characters just because they happen to be rich and famous?” The Virgin Suicides is, I believe, the only film she’s made that isn’t about upper class characters. But, as everyone knows, she grew up the daughter of a famous filmmaker, so I think she is depicting in her movies a world that she knows very well and I think her insider’s P.O.V is both knowing and, more importantly, critical. And you’re right — I think she bends over backwards in Marie Antoinette, for instance, to try and make the heroine seem like a “typical” teenage girl so that young people watching today can relate. That’s the whole point of that particular movie, no? The Bling Ring, on the other hand, is particularly interesting in that it features the least likable characters in any of her films. All of them are frighteningly shallow and vapid and yet I don’t feel as if she’s judging them too harshly: the desire for fame, status, wealth, facebook friends, etc. is everywhere in our society so we all should be able to relate on some level — even if you and I would never do anything as drastic as break into someone’s home. However, I can already hear my students complaining that they couldn’t “care about the characters,” which is my least favorite criticism to hear about any movie.

JM: I’ve never heard that critique, but I understand why people would say that. However, that judgement stems from a lack of understanding of her bigger picture, and only a cursory look at what it aims to express. With her films, you have to look at the entire world that she’s creating, and that world’s relation to our real world. As I previously said, if you look past the characters’ race and class, you see emotions and pressures that extend beyond the superficial and into our reality. In The Bling Ring, it’s easy to judge superficial, privileged white kids living in California, but then again, as you said, we are all living in a world where we can identify with their desire to acquire more privilege, power and material possessions. If we could take advantage of others who possess more than us, would we attempt to appropriate that wealth and power as well? I think a lot of people already do in smaller, more abstract ways that are particular to their own lives.

With concern to Marie Antoinette, I think that saying that the only point of the film is to make Antoinette’s character simply relevant to teenage girls may be oversimplifying a tad bit. I could understand an argument that her character’s experience may be geared towards women, but I could also argue that the character of her husband could be one that men could identify with, such as one about to get married. For both characters, what I take away from their plights is that they are overwhelmed by responsibility, and a desire to skirt that responsibility by essentially being irresponsible, which I think everyone can identify with at one point during their lives. Given that this film is on the surface about a European queen during the 1700s, I think it’s quite a feat to make a contemporary audience identify with her, even if the majority are only teenage girls. And in that same vein, I’d like to talk a little further about the specific conventions and techniques that she uses to do that in that film, and also in Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, and especially The Bling Ring. Specifically, the way she utilizes music, through the lyrics and instruments, to capture a feeling of a scene. When Marie Antoinette came out, there was some criticism about her use of the song “I Want Candy” by the 1980s band Bow Wow Wow. I thought using that song was ingenious for several reasons. First, it gave the scene a sense of whimsy and fun, almost a “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” vibe. Second, it made the 18th century relatable to contemporary audiences. Finally, she also used it as an aid to the set design and costumes. At that point in the film, it was all about excess, fluff, pink and frosting, and she used the bubblegum-ness of the song to mirror that of the film.


MGS: Good point about her use of music. I loved that “I Want Candy” montage. For me, Sofia Coppola’s greatest strength as a director is the way that she combines images and music to convey an incredible sense of energy. I think my favorite scene in The Bling Ring, for instance, was when Rebecca and Mark were driving and singing Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” What really made that sequence for me was the use of jump-cuts, which provided a visual correllary to the fact that the characters were high on cocaine. And you and I both could cite countless examples from her films to illustrate how she conveys a similar energy. How about her use of Heart’s “Barracuda” to accompany a tracking shot of Josh Hartnett’s bad-boy character strolling through a high-school hallway in The Virgin Suicides? Or the twin strippers’ dancing to the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” in Somewhere?

To address your other point, I don’t think it’s necessarily a “bad” thing to make audiences relate to characters in period-piece films. But I do think it might be more courageous to show viewers how different and strange the past was in comparison to the present — to make us understand without necessarily being able to “identify.” There is a very memorable scene in one of my favorite movies, Roberto Rossellini’s The Taking of Power By Louis XIV, where you see the incredibly elaborate process of how food was prepared and served to the king. The scene goes on forever and the longer it goes on the more it feels like something out of science fiction — and it just becomes mesmerizing. The opposite of this approach is what you see in those Elizabeth movies with Cate Blanchett. In the second one, I remember a scene where the queen smokes tobacco (brought to her from the new world by Sir Walter Raleigh) for the first time, and inhaling it makes her break out into fits of laughter. The idea is that it seems like she’s smoking pot, which makes no literal sense; it’s just a cheap, shorthand way to communicate something to contemporary audiences. It’s like the filmmakers are collaborating with the viewers over the heads of the characters, and that strikes me as dishonest. I don’t think this is what Sofia Coppola does in Marie Antoinette at all. She’s much more honest in that she includes deliberate anachronisms — like 1980s New Wave pop music on the soundtrack — in order to call attention to her modern point-of-view.

I’d like to bring up now what I consider Coppola’s biggest flaw: I think she’s a much better director than writer. While I think she’s good with sound and image, and while I think she’s good at directing actors, I feel like her approach to characterization and plotting has occasionally been a bit trite. I think when she tries her hand at satire, especially, her scenes tend to fall flat. The way the Giovanni Ribisi and Anna Faris characters are written in Lost in Translation seems too broad to me in comparison to the other characters in the movie. Same thing with Leslie Mann in The Bling Ring: her clueless New Age-mommy character feels one-dimensional and like an attempt to explain why her daughters were seduced by a life of crime. I know you’re a bigger fan of Coppola than I am so I wonder if this criticism makes any sense to you and if you disagree.

JM: I agree that there is value in showing the past as it was, but let’s face it, a movie about the 1700s in Europe may turn a lot of people off, and Coppola makes history more accessible to those who maybe wouldn’t necessarily have an interest in that topic otherwise. In my last defense of Marie Antoinette, I once took a class in grad school while pursuing my Masters in Library Science that focused on the history of the printed book. During that course, we focused on a chapter on scribes in the Middle Ages and saw pictures of early tomes with doodles along the spines from 500 A.D. from bored scribes. Even in the Middle Ages, people got bored at work and in class, as we do now. Throughout the entire class, the professor kept repeating that there is no us and them, only us; that people from 1,000 years ago, and two weeks ago, face roughly the same issues. My point here is that by Coppola presenting Marie Antoinette as a normal person with palpable needs and problems, she allows us to make an emotional connection to an unlikely historical figure.

Regarding Coppola’s writing abilities, her stories can be described as simple, and a good vehicle for the “less is more” ideology. In comparison to most films now, which are extremely complicated and where there is more, more, more of everything, she takes a basic story or feeling and illuminates the story around that concept. When I watch Coppola’s films, I know they are her films because of how my gut feels. She doesn’t beat you over the head with what she’s expressing, she lets it wash over you.

To briefly address the role of the mother in The Bling Ring, I don’t necessarily see her character as a complete explanation of why her daughter stole from others, though I agree that we can gather that her lack of parental supervision may have made it easier for her daughter to act up. I think the “why” of why this group of people did what they did goes back to what we’ve been discussing all along, and it’s multifaceted. It’s the parents, it’s Facebook, it’s our collective experience as people living in the 2000s, capitalism, and we could go on and on.

To just change the subject slightly, I’ve been asking myself if Sofia Coppola is a feminist director, or if the question is even important. I ask because so few films are directed by women even in today’s film world, and I wonder what the women who are working are doing and saying. She’s a woman, sure, but that doesn’t make her a feminist. Men can be feminists, and women can be huge proponents of patriarchy (insert Serena Williams here, but that’s for another day). Given my own working knowledge and constant exploration of what feminism is, I’d say yes. She also does pass the Bechdel Test. If I were pressed to give my own ruling on you, I’d say that you would fall into the feminist camp, Mike, so I’d like to know your opinion on this.


MGS: Great story about the scribes.

I should clarify that I like the simplicity of Coppola’s narratives. The “plot” of The Bling Ring is so lightweight that it’s barely there. But, for me, the film registers primarily as a sensual — and wholly cinematic — experience: it’s all about sound, color, light and movement and how these things register specifically to a group of people who are young, carefree and self-absorbed. In this respect, it’s like a pop song (as is Spring Breakers, with which it shares many similarities — more on that in a second). By contrast, I think the scenes with the parents feel a bit contrived and moralistic: Coppola makes it a point to illustrate that the parents are either absent or ignorant about what their kids are doing and Leslie Mann’s dialogue is pretty cartoonish. I agree that Coppola isn’t saying bad parenting is solely to blame but I think the film would’ve been more complex and troubling if we had seen that at least some of the parents were decent, smart, caring people.

The feminism question is a good one but also a thorny one: Coppola’s films aren’t explicitly about, say, gender inequality but if you can say that it is feminist for an artist to thoroughly explore the experiences and feelings of female characters (and I think you can), then I’d say Coppola’s a feminist by that criteria. I also think you could argue that she brings a female point-of-view to her sense of film aesthetics, and I don’t just mean in a simple “female gaze”-kind of way. The critic Kent Jones said something great about Coppola in his review of The Bling Ring. He wrote: “Sofia Coppola is uncommonly gifted at the articulation of something so fleeting and ephemeral that it seems to be on the verge of evaporating on contact with her hovering, deadpan, infinitely patient camera eye.” I know exactly what he means and I think this quality that he’s talking about arises from a specifically female touch (as opposed to say, the more masculine approach that Harmony Korine brings to Spring Breakers, which nonetheless also has a druggy/dreamy/poppy feel and similarly uses the exploits of shallow teenagers to critique capitalism).

Having said all that, my favorite aspect of The Bling Ring was the ending. I really admired the courage it took for Coppola to not only make a film about “unlikable” people but to end it with Nicki Moore (Emma Watson’s character) looking directly at the camera and pimping her website. To me, that said that this young woman had learned nothing and was, if anything, a worse person than before she went to prison. She was basically using her criminal activity to try and extend her 15-minutes of Z-list fame. That, to me, was a daringly truthful and unsettling ending and one that more than compensated for the reservations I had earlier about the depiction of the parents. Anything you’d like to add?

JM: Your description of The Bling Ring plot as “lightweight” is a distinct calling card of Coppola, but in her films, this airiness is expressed through the sound, the colors, the music, and so forth. For me, it’s the combination of all of those elements that I was previously describing that “wash over you,” and that includes the writing. What Kent Jones says is spot on with the “fleeting and ephemeral,” which I really get a sense of in The Virgin Suicides. The feeling that she leaves you with is difficult to describe in concrete terms, it’s almost an aura of the film. You make the point that it is an attribute of a female touch, and I would agree, but I would say that it’s a feminine touch, whereas visceral, blunt themes with heavy violence and explicit sex may lean more towards a masculine sensibility.

A quick note on the parents, I looked up the mother’s website, Andrea Arlington, and her online profile seems pretty matched up with how she was portrayed in the film. This seems like one of those cases where you can’t even “make this stuff up,” that reality in this case is sufficient for the film. To play devil’s advocate just a bit more, I think that one could make a slight argument that in The Bling Ring the mother of Nick did seem concerned and was not portrayed as a space cadet. However, I get that we aren’t given a lot of information on the other parents, so a more well-rounded argument is difficult to make.

Looking over her five films, I can’t wait to see Sofia Coppola’s filmography grow into a lengthy, full-bodied collection. When you and I first met, I remember gushing about The Virgin Suicides and singing Coppola’s praises, and you told me that you didn’t like her. Granted, when we first met I believe your film taste to be a little bourgeois and has definitely come down to earth a little more. That being said, how do you feel about her now?

MGS: At the time we met, I had only seen Lost in Translation, which I think is overrated but which seems to be her most beloved film. I do feel, however, that she has gotten better with each subsequent movie. I consider myself a fan and I look forward to her future work.

Jill’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films
5. Somewhere
4. Lost in Translation
3. The Bling Ring
2. The Virgin Suicides
1. Marie Antoinette

Mike’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films
5. The Virgin Suicides
4. Lost in Translation
3. Marie Antoinette
2. Somewhere
1. The Bling Ring

Mike’s Rating for The Bling Ring: 7.6

You can check out the trailer for The Bling Ring via YouTube below:

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