Tag Archives: Harold Ramis

Last Thoughts on Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais


Learning of the recent passing of directors Alain Resnais and Harold Ramis was, for a number of reasons, particularly painful for me. In a weird way, these two great artists, so seemingly different on the surface, were always linked together in my mind: following the lead of the critic Glenn Kenny, I was only half-joking when I introduced a screening of Last Year at Marienbad in a class just weeks ago by saying that it was “the arthouse version of Groundhog Day.” Both movies explore the premise of having a character relive the same time frame over and over again while trying to convince others that they are not crazy in the bargain. But the affinity between the whip-smart creators of these movies goes deeper than that. Resnais was a critical darling frequently characterized as “cerebral” and “intellectual” but he had a poppier side that was often sadly overlooked. (He was fond of comic books and Stephen Sondheim, and his love of The X-Files directly resulted in a fruitful collaboration with Mark Snow, the composer of that show’s theme song.) Ramis received a kind of grudging critical respect for being a successful-but-vulgar showman and yet his films also explored serious philosophical issues that went unremarked upon at the time of their initial release. Alain Resnais was one of the last living links to a heroic era of European art cinema and Harold Ramis was one of the last remaining “good guys” directing for the major Hollywood studios. The world now feels like a much emptier place without them.

Jack Black and Michael Cera in Columbia Pictures' comedy YEAR ONE.

Harold Ramis’s death ended up being the occasion that got me to recently watch his final film, the Jack Black-starring caveman-comedy Year One. Even though I was a fan of Ramis when it was released in 2009, I had foolishly avoided seeing it in theaters due to its mostly negative critical reception. After having a rough couple of days in which I found myself feeling creatively and professionally unfulfilled, however, my wife and I finally decided to watch Year One last night — and found ourselves laughing uproariously through the whole thing. Of course, the Mel Brooks-inspired effort has its share of fart and piss jokes but the director of Groundhog Day also managed to slip in a sly and resonant message about the importance of not following leaders and being the master of one’s own destiny. Ramis, who once rhetorically asked of those who preferred movies that didn’t make them think, “Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?,” was making smart comedies that were ahead of their time until the end. In a neat coincidence, I also recently saw Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s masterful experimental film A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which contains the loveliest tribute to Ramis imaginable (even if it was unintentional): in a documentary segment set in a hippie commune in rural Estonia, a young woman lifts up her Animal House t-shirt to breastfeed her baby while simultaneously engaging a male friend in a philosophical dialogue about how to make the world a better place. “The world needs more parties,” the woman decides. Her intellectual companion concurs, noting that “parties are autonomous zones.” I’d like to think that, somewhere, the author of Animal House is smiling.


Last August, Harold Ramis’s wife, Erica Mann Ramis, was a guest in my Intro to Film class at Oakton Community College. She graciously allowed me to interview her in front of the class, sat through a screening of a documentary she had produced about the Joffrey Ballet (which she’d probably seen 500 times) and participated in a question and answer session with the students afterwards. She acted both surprised and pleased when I told her how much I loved her husband’s unheralded black comedy The Ice Harvest. She told me she was going to tell him I said that, and I really hope she did because — even though he was super-famous for playing Egon in Ghostbusters — he never really got the critical respect that he deserved as a director. My thoughts go out to Erica and the entire Ramis family. You can read my interview with her here:


You can see my personal photo tour of the Woodstock, Illinois locations featured in Groundhog Day here:



Prior to screening Last Year at Marienbad, I told my Perspectives on Film class that I considered Alain Resnais to be one of the world’s five best living filmmakers. Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine what the past half-century of cinema would have looked like without him — the hotel-corridor tracking shots in The Shining; the nonlinear structures of early Tarantino; the narratives doubling back on themselves in Run Lola Run and Too Many Ways to Be Number One; the backwards storytelling of Peppermint Candy, Memento and Irreversible; the Cubist editing schemes of Upstream Color; and the entire filmography of Wong Kar-Wai, with its obsessive focus on the themes of time and memory. Would any of these things have been quite the same had Resnais’s formally innovative and groundbreaking films not come along first to provide a shining example?

In my list of the 50 Best Living Film Directors, from which he has just been removed, this is what I had written of Alain Resnais:

Although often lumped in with the Nouvelle Vague, Alain Resnais was a successful documentary filmmaker years before his brethren at Cahiers du Cinema took up cameras and started doing it for themselves. Among these early works, Night and Fog remains, for my money, the best movie ever made about the holocaust. That film’s elegant use of tracking shots and cross-cutting foreshadowed the intellectually provocative and formally dazzling qualities of Resnais’ classic early narrative features: Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Resnais’ brilliant editing schemes, in which chronologically scrambled stories dovetail with his cherished theme of subjective memory, have been massively influential on the last half-century of world cinema. After the underrated La Guerre est finie in 1968, Resnais’s output became more hit or miss (I personally have no use for Stavisky or Smoking/No Smoking); but later masterworks like Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Wild Reeds are disturbing, hilarious, deeply satisfying examinations of human behavior that reconfirm Resnais’s status as a giant of the medium.

Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Muriel (1963), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

Alain Resnais’s final film, Life of Riley, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month, where it won the prestigious Silver Bear award. One hopes that it will receive stateside distribution soon.

You can read my long review of Resnais’s penultimate movie, the splendid You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, here:




Happy Groundhog Day from White City Cinema

Or did I post this yesterday?


Film Producer Interview: Erica Mann Ramis

Over the summer I had the great pleasure of hosting a very special guest in my Intro to Film class at Oakton Community College: Erica Mann Ramis. The occasion was the screening of a terrific 2012 documentary that Ramis produced, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance. The film combines archival footage with incisive new interviews to paint a vivid portrait of the fascinating relationship between the Joffrey Ballet’s co-founders, the larger-than-life personalities Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, and shows how the evolution of their company over the past half century has mirrored changes in American society. Below is a transcript of our informal interview, which occurred in front of my class, immediately prior to the screening.

erica Erica Mann Ramis (right) with dancers Trinette Singleton and Charthel Arthur

MGS: Oh my goodness, I feel like James Lipton right now: “Tell me about your childhood.”

EMR: (laughing) You don’t want to know.

MGS: (laughing) Actually, I really do.

EMR: My father.

MGS: Yes, I mentioned to the class that your father, Daniel Mann, was a noted stage and film director. He worked with everyone from James Dean . . .

EMR: On Broadway.

MGS: Yes, to Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon. And, of course, he directed Liz Taylor in her first Oscar-winning performance . . .

EMR: Butterfield 8.

MGS: Yes, and also one of my favorite actresses, Anna Magnani . . .

EMR: That was his favorite actress.

MGS: Really? He and I have similar tastes then.

EMR: The Rose Tattoo.

MGS: Yes. That must have been a really interesting environment to grow up in.

EMR: Here’s my answer: it was! My father made a lot of films. He made many of them in New York. So, even though I grew up in L.A., we went to New York a lot to be with him. It was a whole different world of moviemaking then. There were studios. If you were a director you would sign with a studio for, you know, whatever, 10 films. And, you know, my father wore a suit and tie to work. And there’s photographs of us as children really dressed up to go to the set. My father started on Broadway. He did Come Back, Little Sheba on Broadway and he did Paint Your Wagon on Broadway — the musical. And actors loved him, actresses loved him. It was a different world. The business world and the creative world were very separate. In my father’s world he was the creative one. And always, the business world, they were there to cut you down and make you come in under budget. But he worked really, really well with actors. And, later in his life he taught directing and I got to sit in on some of his classes. And working with people to see a scene done that you could’ve fallen asleep (during), and then see him work with people to get it to the point where you were absolutely emotionally involved, it was pretty remarkable to see. He just had incredible communication with people. He was tough. He was very tough. He had very high standards. He was very concerned about society and issues and social justice. He was not a Communist but many of his friends were card-carrying Communists and were blacklisted during that time. There were many people over that were artists and intellects and musicians. And it was the kind of thing as a kid when you’re running in and out of the house, you would hear interesting conversations that somehow sunk in. A woman and her husband, Salka and Peter Vertiel, owned our house before us and all the German expats, they had a salon: like Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin and all those people would come to our house. So when I was a child their mail still came. Letters came for Greta Garbo and I collected them . . .

MGS: (laughing) So you opened them and read them, right?

EMR: They were mostly not much personal but . . . I’m not sure I really answered your question. But I skirted it.

MGS: No, you did. That’s amazing. It sounds like an amazing environment to grow up in. Did you feel like going into the “family business” as a kid?

EMR: I still feel like it.

MGS: Well, you have. When you were growing up, were you interested in pursuing an acting career?

EMR: I always wrote. I still write poetry and I have some unfinished screenplays that — maybe now that our youngest child is going to college — I’ll attempt to finish. I always wanted to write and I did study acting although it was sort of to see writing from another point of view. And I loved it. I really, really loved it. I had fabulous teachers and some horrible teachers. I think it’s so important in anything like that to trust your gut even if you don’t know a lot. If you aren’t feeling like you’re being opened up and uplifted, I’d say go somewhere else. The hard thing with my father, as his child . . . There were many hard things but one of them was when I first wanted to study acting in high school, he said, “Nobody can teach you to act. You either come into the world with this gift or you don’t have it.” I’d sit there and go, “Well, I mean, I just want to take a class. I’d like to get on the stage.” And the truth is, whatever he meant by that, he also taught acting and he taught directing and he was talking about some untouchable . . . something you can’t even say to a child. It wasn’t right, it was not okay.

MGS: It was too advanced.

EMR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MGS: So, speaking of acting, you were in Club Paradise.

EMR: I worked on that movie as an assistant to the director (Harold Ramis) who ended up being my husband.

MGS: But you had a bit part in the film as well . . .

EMR: I did, I did. I worked for the producer on that movie. The bit part had no words. They were all internal (laughs).

MGS: What is your credit? Isn’t it “Girl . . .”?

EMR: It’s “Erica Mann — Girl at Bar” (laughs). It was a lot of fun to do. I was with Eugene Levy and Rick Moranis. Club Paradise was one of Harold’s movies that came and went rather quickly but I actually like it. It was a lot of fun to do. We were on the island of Jamaica for four months — the cast and crew and all and it was pretty great.

MGS: Were you still pursuing acting then or were you more interested . . .

EMR: I was more interested in writing. So working in production had really little to do with my love but I thought it was a great opportunity and a great way to learn. And I loved moviemaking. I’ve been on movie sets all my life. I still — if I’m going on set or if I’m in L.A. and go to a studio — I still get butterflies. I just love it. I love taking nothing and creating something, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. I mean, obviously, good is great and bad is not so great but when you’re making a film, everyone — even the worst of movies, I promise you — when people are working on them, everyone believes in the film. Because you’re working 14, 16-hour days and you’re suddenly like on an island, figuratively speaking, with 150, 200 people and you’re making magic one way or another.

MGS: I’ve made a couple of short films and I know exactly what you’re talking about — the synergy between the cast and crew. It’s a labor of love for everybody because they’re not doing it for the money.

EMR: No.

MGS: And your husband has an enormous amount of integrity to be working in Hollywood in the present day. It’s tough, I think, to navigate a career in Hollywood today.

EMR: But he was very lucky. I mean, the first screenplay he wrote was Animal House, and the first movie he directed was Caddyshack . . .

MGS: And that success has allowed him to do more personal work in recent years?

EMR: Absolutely.

MGS: Groundhog Day is one of my favorites. I actually show that in class a lot. And, also, I’m a big fan of The Ice Harvest.

EMR: Are you? Wow, I’m gonna tell him you said that.

MGS: That’s a really underrated film.

EMR: It is. I think when people are successful for being in comedy, when you change your tune a little bit it’s very hard to be well received. And Ice Harvest is kind of film noir-ish and edgy in a way that Harold never really had done before.

MGS: Right. It’s a black comedy.

EMR: Yeah, and I really like it. I agree with you.

MGS: And it’s a great Christmas movie too.

EMR: Yeah, it is.

MGS: (to class) You all should see The Ice Harvest if you have not — with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

EMR: And Oliver Platt.

MGS: And Oliver Platt who kind of steals the movie . . .

EMR: I love him. Very funny.

MGS: Okay, let’s talk about Joffrey now. How did this movie come about and how did you end up producing it?

EMR: Gerald Arpino, who is one of the partners — he and Robert Joffrey started the Joffrey in the 50s in Seattle. Harold and I first moved here in 1996. I think the Joffrey had come maybe that year or the year before to Chicago. And we had the opportunity of meeting Gerald Arpino. And I kind of fell in love with him. And I think he kind of fell in love with Harold. But that’s okay. (laughs) No, he loved me too.

MGS: And were you a fan of ballet before that?

EMR: Oh yeah. I did study dance. Dance and poetry were my first loves. So I studied, not ballet, but modern dance for many years through college. I love dance. We initially met Gerry because Harold came up with an idea for a ballet, a big story ballet. And it was a wonderful idea. We had lunch on a yacht. It was so dramatic. We had lunch and we went out on the lake and we had just moved here and suddenly there was this huge thunder and lightning storm. I was absolutely terrified. I kept just wanting everyone to say, “You’ll be okay.” And Harold told him the whole story. And he (Gerry) loved it. But he said to do a ballet of that caliber would be millions and millions and millions of dollars. It was impossible to do. But we really liked each other and so we all just got together a lot. If they had, like their season here, let’s say it’s, I don’t know, 10 shows or whatever it is, I would go to see the same show every single night. Because I loved it so much and I just connected with Gerry’s choreography. So the way it happened, we have other friends from Michigan and they were down — we all went to the Joffrey Gala some years ago and Gerry was quite elderly and frail. And I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years and it really was surprising to see. And as we were leaving, we were both in our separate cars and we called each other and we all four had the same idea at the same time: “Why don’t we just get Gerry on film? Let’s just tape him. Let’s interview him. He might not be here very long.” And I don’t think he’s ever been interviewed that way before.

MGS: To tell the story of the company?

EMR: Yeah, and about him and about dance and whatnot. So we knew about this documentary film house called Media Process and Bob Hercules who directed it. So we called him and said “Right now we just want to get Gerry on tape.” So at first we just did these interviews with Gerry that were fabulous and we had some of the dancers doing rehearsals in the studio with him and that’s the last time . . . it was his choreography. It was his first piece and his last. And that was the last time we ever saw him. It was so incredible.

MGS: So powerful.

EMR: Yeah. So once we had that, then we thought “What if we develop this?” And then we met with the heads of the Joffrey and with various people and it all just started happening. We were very lucky.

MGS: It sounds like when you started out, you didn’t really know what the final form of it was going to be . . .

EMR: No. At first we didn’t even know we were making a film. We knew we wanted him and from that we’d see. After we had that we thought “It’s crazy not to make a film.” And then with the director and Una Jackman, who was also my producing partner, we did a lot of research and read a lot of books about the Joffrey and started calling and traveling all over the country to do interviews with people connected and dancers. And then Bob the director started talking about form and it was really like having a puzzle. Here was this footage with Gerry, which turns out, as I think you’ll see in the film, we couldn’t use a lot of it because he really looked like he was on his last legs. And he was. It was very poignant.

MGS: But that (interview) was the seed?

EMR: But that was the seed. And then the rest of putting it together came from: “Who will we interview? What are we asking them? What’s our goal here?” Once we got all of that, it all had to be transcribed, you know? And then you start piecing it all together and we filmed actual dancing and rehearsals. And it was wonderful.

MGS: And I think that’s a good place for us to stop. Thank you so much for chatting with me.

You can watch Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance in its entirety on the PBS website:



Woodstock from Welles to Ramis: A Photo Tour

I recently drove 50-odd miles northwest of my fair city of Chicago to visit, for the first time, the quaint suburb of Woodstock, Illinois. The purpose of the trip was to take pictures for possible inclusion in Flickering Empire, the forthcoming book that I co-wrote with Adam Selzer about the history of early film production in Chicago. I specifically wanted to visit the former location of the Todd Seminary for Boys where Orson Welles, an alumnus, co-directed the film The Hearts of Age in 1934 when he was just 19-years-old. Although I knew the Todd School had closed in 1954 and that all of its buildings had since been razed, I wanted to see where it once stood and hopefully take photos of any surviving landmarks — such as a giant outdoor bell or a distinctive gravestone — that contributed to such striking images in the movie. I also knew that historic downtown Woodstock — standing in for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — was where Illinois-native Harold Ramis had filmed Groundhog Day in 1993. Since Groundhog Day is one of my favorite comedies and a movie I frequently show in film studies classes, I decided to try and visit prominent locations from that film as well. Below is a photo tour of my day-long expedition.

Here’s Orson Welles and his classmates in front of the residence building known as Grace Hall. This photo would’ve been taken sometime between 1926 and 1931. Click on the photo to enlarge it (Orson is the tall lad standing in the middle — his head is directly beneath the window on the far left side of the building):
orson Photo: Woodstock Public Library

No one knows exactly where The Hearts of Age, Welles’ debut film, was shot but it was almost certainly somewhere on the Todd campus. Here’s 19-year-old Welles heavily made-up as “Death” in a still I created from the DVD of the film:

Tragically, Grace Hall, the final building standing from the original Todd School campus, was razed in 2010. It was reportedly still in excellent condition when the owners demolished it in order to build new “duplex” housing for seniors:
grace Photo: Woodstock Advocate

Here’s the same location (318 Christian Way) as seen today:

Welles also performed at the famous Woodstock Opera House. Here he is (bottom left), with fellow summer-stock players Michael MacLiammoir and Louise Prussing, onstage at the Opera House in 1934:

The exterior of the Woodstock Opera House as seen today (note the Italianate bell tower, which probably inspired the climax of Welles’ 1946 film The Stranger):

Speaking of which . . . one of the many ways Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day character, Phil Connors, attempts to commit suicide in the film is by leaping from the tower:

Here’s a frontal view of the Opera House. Located at 121 Van Buren St, it also plays the “Pennsylvania Hotel” where Andie McDowell’s character, Rita, stays in the movie:

Phil, meanwhile, stays at a bed and breakfast known as the “Cherry Street Inn.” In real life, this gorgeous Victorian mansion is actually a private residence:

Here’s the Woodstock Theater, which plays the “Alpine Theater” in the film, as seen today. The address is 209 Main Street (sadly, Heidi II was not playing when I visited):

The “Tip Top Cafe,” where Phil has breakfast with Rita and Larry (Chris Elliot), is now a taqueria. It is located at 108 Cass St:

Woodstock Square, which plays “Gobbler’s Knob” in the film:

Some of the most memorable moments in Groundhog Day involve Phil’s repeated run-ins with annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky):

The same sidewalk as seen today:

“Watch out for that first step. It’s a doozy!”:

There are some very impressive Orson Welles celebrations planned for Woodstock in 2014 and 2015. You can learn about them on Wellesnet, the invaluable Orson Welles Web Resource, here: http://www.wellesnet.com/?page_id=5387

You can learn more about Woodstock and Groundhog Day here: http://woodstockgroundhog.org/pages/tour.html

Unless otherwise noted, all of the above photos were taken by me.

A Serious Talk About American Comedy

Katherine Stuart, one of the brightest of my former students from the College of Lake County, recently asked to interview me for an argumentative research paper she is currently writing in an English class. The topic of the paper is why classic comedy films are better than the comedy films of today. With her permission, I am reprinting the wide-ranging interview in its entirety below.

KS: You used Bringing Up Baby in your class. What characteristics do you think this film has that make it a classic?

MGS: The screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (who incidentally fell in love while writing it) is very clever and contains a lot of witty banter within a very solid narrative structure, the direction by Howard Hawks is flawless and, most importantly, the chemistry between the two leads (Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) is palpable and irresistible. I always describe the mixture of their distinctive speaking voices as sounding like a beautiful musical duet. Furthermore, there’s a “wildness” to the film, an element of chaos represented by the leopard, that I think is crucial for a screwball comedy to be effective. The leopard is associated with Hepburn’s independence and untamed sexuality, which is presented in stark contrast to Grant’s frigid fiancé (“no domestic entanglements of any kind”). Plus, it’s just so damn fun watching this woman turn this man’s life upside down.

KS: What do you think are some of the best qualities of classic comedy films?

MGS: For the most part, it’s the screenplays. Look at the scripts for Some Like It Hot or The Apartment: they are completely sound according to the rules of narrative logic and the characters are three-dimensional and highly memorable. Billy Wilder could have made those films as dramas and they might have been just as effective but he chose to make them as comedies instead. Or consider any of Preston Sturges’ films. Those movies are just incredible pieces of satirical writing. It’s what I think Mark Twain would’ve done had he been born in the 20th century and decided to become a filmmaker. Nobody even tries to write comedy like that anymore. Or if they do, their screenplays certainly aren’t being produced.

KS: Why do you like Howard Hawks as a classic screwball comedy director?

MGS: Hawks’ style is completely unobtrusive. It’s invisible. You’re never aware of where he’s putting the camera, when he’s moving the camera, when he’s cutting, etc. and that’s because he’s always making the right choices. He was the consummate professional Hollywood director. The first close-up in Bringing Up Baby doesn’t even occur until 17 minutes into the movie! It’s a close-up of Katherine Hepburn’s face expressing disappointment after she finds out Cary Grant is engaged. She doesn’t say a word and yet it’s an unbelievably effective moment. Hollywood comedies nowadays are slathered with close-ups from beginning to end and there’s no thought behind any of it. It’s just to try and make a movie star’s face fill up the screen.

KS: Do you think that classic comedy films are better than comedy films today and why?

MGS: It seems inarguable to me that the best comedies from Hollywood’s golden age are superior to the comedy films of today. The problem with today’s comedies is that the majority of them are nothing but a long string of jokes from beginning to end. The approach of most of these filmmakers is to throw everything they can think of at the screen and see what sticks. The end result is that even a relatively funny movie is going to have a lot of unfunny moments. (I do love the original Airplane! but I hate most of what it has spawned.) Also, the tone of today’s comedies is almost always uneven. In a movie like Superbad, there are some moments where the dialogue and performances are surprisingly naturalistic but then the next minute something completely absurd and cartoonish is happening. The problem is that the filmmakers can’t get from point A to point B smoothly. The tonal shifts are completely jarring.

KS: Who are some of your favorite classic comedy directors?

MGS: From the silent era, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were geniuses. Their humor is entirely visual and is therefore universal and timeless. Their best movies are just as funny today as they ever were. The reaction of students in my Intro to Film classes (the majority of whom have never seen a silent movie) is proof of that. In the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are my favorites. Sturges was the best comedy writer who also knew, as a director, how to get the best out of his actors. Everything William Demarest says in a Sturges movie sounds hilarious. Lubitsch’s movies are just so elegant and so damn effortless. In addition to being very funny, they are actually beautiful. No one tries to make comedy beautiful today. Also, the early Marx brothers’ movies at Paramount are among the funniest – and most insane – movies ever made, especially Duck Soup, which was directed by the great Leo McCarey.

KS: What are some of the characteristics of comedy films today?

MGS: Most comedies today fall into one of two subgenres: the gross-out comedy, which is aimed at male viewers and the romantic comedy, which is aimed at female viewers. The gross-out comedy is a more explicit, contemporary version of the “teen sex comedy” that was popular in the 1980s. It is characterized by humor involving bodily functions and fluids and was first popularized by There’s Something About Mary and American Pie in the late Nineties. The less said about contemporary romantic comedy, the better.

KS: Who are some of your favorite directors of comedy films today?

MGS: I think Woody Allen is still the best comedy director working in America today. His output might be hit or miss but I thought Midnight in Paris was a terrific movie. The premise of it was so clever and the tone of it so refreshingly sweet. I’m not surprised that it’s his highest grossing movie. Richard Linklater is a great writer and director of comedy. I especially like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset and School of Rock. I like Harold Ramis a lot. Groundhog Day is probably my favorite Hollywood comedy to be released in my lifetime. The Coen Brothers do comedy well even when they’re not making official comedies. I like the Farrelly brothers’ early movies. And I like a bunch of random comedies that you might say succeed in spite of who directed them – like Office Space and Borat.

KS: Are there any modern screwball comedy films that you think are not as good as classic screwball comedy films? What characteristics do you think it lacks?

MGS: I would say that almost all contemporary films that try for a screwball tone end up not measuring up to the classic screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties. Most of the contemporary examples (e.g., Runaway Bride, Along Came Polly) are too tame, cutesy and formulaic. They lack the anarchistic spirit of the originals. Also important is that a lot of the original screwballs were about class difference and therefore contain a certain amount of social criticism as subtext. Contemporary Hollywood isn’t interested in doing that. The Coen brothers probably do screwball the best and yet, interestingly, the times when they’ve tried to work purely in that mode (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty) resulted in what are probably their least successful films. They’re better at marrying aspects of screwball to other genres. Also in that vein, The Social Network, which is of course a great drama, does contain a surprising screwball vein in Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and in the delivery of the performers.

KS: As the expert, what do you think I should know that I did not ask you?

MGS: A couple of things: I do think comedy is alive and well in America, just not in the movies. Nowadays, most people get their comedy from sketch comedy shows, stand-up comedy, Comedy Central or even YouTube. None of those things existed during Hollywood’s studio system era. One could argue that there’s less of a need to laugh at the movies today because we’re surrounded by comedy everywhere else we go. Also, I’m not a reactionary; I don’t think that movies in general are any worse than they’ve ever been. But almost all of my favorite American films of the 21st century are dramas (Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mulholland Drive, Letters from Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood, The Hurt Locker, etc.) It seems that if you’re a serious, intelligent, artistically ambitious filmmaker in America today, comedy isn’t a genre that you’re going to try to get into. Therefore, as a filmmaker, I am naturally pursuing comedy.

Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)


22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)


21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

19. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

la ceremonie 2

18. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

17. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

16. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

15. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

14. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

13. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)


Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

12. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

11. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

10. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

7. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

6. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)


Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

5. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

4. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)


3. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)


Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

2. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)


1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.

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