Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Aughts, to be in pictures

Ten years ago on New Year's Eve, I remember working at this family restaurant in Pacific Grove, California, where my wife-of-less-than-a-year came specifically to bring me to the rocks by the beach so that we could watch the world end.

Remember, of course, that the end of the last decade was also the end of the millenium, and that this would cause all our computers to go back to 1900, and then we would all be plunged into the dark ages, and chaos and, well, yes. Prince had, after all, warned us that the end was then. So, in the immortal words of the Kitchens of Distinction, what happens now?

Lots of film folks are weighing in with their best-o'-the-aughts, none better in my opinion than Nick, who has a wildly and wonderfully eclectic list with morsels of information indicating why he likes them. Given that we had some free time coming home this last weekend whilst driving on the Delaware Turnpike Parking Lot, I mused upon what my own list would look like. Unlike any other film person writing right now, however, I cannot claim that I have seen a gargantuan number of movies this decade, what with the arrival of a job, a child, a book and tenure (in that order) over the last few years. (This is why I like Nick's list, since it provides a checklist of the most tantalizingly raised foie gras as well as the funkiest salted popcorn.) My own preference for certain kinds of movies therefore warps this list considerably; that there are fewer that come at the end of the decade is also no surprise, given that I have seen fewer films as the decade went on. Yet these, a baker's dozen, happen to be the movies that stick in my head, which is the greatest praise I can think of:
  • Brokeback Mountain (2005): When we first saw this movie at Telluride, Angela and I were a little underwhelmed; rumored even then to be the break-out hit of the year, we thought it a bit slow and Heath Ledger a bit... well, mumbly. We admitted at the time that it could have been simply because it was the fifth movie of the day, and that we were damn tired. Years have passed, the hype is over, the Oscar lost, the actor buried -- and still, the movie has a haunting lilt for me. I have since taught the film as a wonderful exercise in adaptation, given that Ang Lee imbues the spaces in Proulx's story with a delicate hand.
  • Donnie Darko (2001): This movie may be a one-hit wonder for Richard Kelly, who has not really done anything as mystifying as his debut -- but, oh, what an experience. I honestly think my feelings for this movie are more for how I saw it than the movie itself: after the slow boil at midnight screenings, I caught this with a graduate student at a midnight screening at the now-defunct Visions Theater while my wife was out of town. Baffled yet mesmerized by the movie, we realized that this one merited some discussion -- but I had to run to catch the last bus back to Glover Park. The grad students begged me to go for coffee -- and I suddenly realized that yes, indeed, I could stay out late! The conversations that the movie engendered were generally thrilling, with all sorts of viewers postulating about what the giant rabbit torturing Jake Gyllenhaal might mean; that alone makes it one of the most thrilling movie experiences of the decade. I saw the subsequent "Director's Cut" once, and never again: his clarifying his own film made me like it far less, and I much prefer the ambiguous original release.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): I notice that my list is terribly romantic, which amuses me given my own penchant for dark material. Sunshine, however, was irresistible from the get-go, combining the melancholy/beautiful nature of love with the wacky/ordinary nature of a small company erasing memories for those who want it. (That the pic is set in Rockville Centre, next to my hometown of Baldwin, is a bonus.) Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey are delights playing against type -- and against each other -- and the doomed couple, and the movie looks dirty/lovely throughout, with Gondry realizing that the most powerful way to use technology is to make it look ordinary.
  • Hable con ella (2002): This would probably be my pick if I had to only list one favorite: Almodóvar's engrossing love story that focuses, oddly enough for him, on men. I am a huge fan of the Spaniard (heck, I taught a course on him), and this movie cemented the deal for me (even though I really love Todo sobre mi madre and La mala educación -- which I didn't get at first, and now also totally enthralls me). I love the ethical strings this movie pulls at (what do you make of an otherwise nice guy who suddenly does something morally reprehensible -- and what then, when that act results in something positive?), and the movie is fun to teach to freshmen, who otherwise like their movies black-and-white, at least when it comes to good-and-bad. The performances throughout the film are matched by the multiple performances within the film: Caetano Veloso singing a hreatbreaking version of "Cucurrucú, paloma"; and the two dances that bookend the film so beautifully.
  • In the Mood for Love (2000): Peoplse who know my taste in movies know that I am all about sumptuous atmosphere with many layers to them. (This list only proves that point, I think.) Of the list, however, Wong Kar-Wai's sumptuous love letter to Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and the six thousand dresses that she wears throughout the film also has a complex love story to boot. The scene where they confront (and confirm for) each other that their spouses are having an affair, set to Nat King Cole singing in Spanish, is one of my favorite scenes in film.
  • Madeinusa (2006): So over the last decade, I happened to write a book about Peruvian cinema and all -- and yet this film only got one line in the whole tome. I agreed to lead a discussion about this film, sight unseen, sponsored by my university library -- but when it was over, I was in such shock from what I had seen, I barely knew how to begin. This assured first feature from Claudia Llosa is my current obsession (and the subject of an article in the works, heh heh), where Magaly Solier's performance dares you to not appreciate the levels at work throughout the film.
  • Moulin Rouge! (2001): We drove all the way to Santa Cruz back in the day to see this film, and were not that impressed when we saw it. After three separate times of teaching a course on the musical, I now completely love this film. Part of it is really wishing that I were Ewen McGregor; part of it, I'm sure, is that he sings "Your Song," which I serenaded Angela with before we were married; part of it must also be that Angela and I duet on the soundtrack when we go on long drives. But the flash and dazzle of the movie (somehow) holds, and more effectively that one would think. (It even does Singin' in the Rain one better by actually making the only new song a plot point.)
  • La niña santa (2004): I don't know whether this is the most melancholy melodrama or terrifying horror film I have seen in ages, but Argentine Lucretia Martel worked magic over the course of this decade. This whole movie, revealing the tensely wound stories festering in a hotel in the same location as her debut film, La ciénaga, seems to be shot in close-up, providing us with an uncomfortably intimate view of people gone horribly wrong.
  • Punch-Drunk Love (2002): I still really love this movie, more so than the other PTA flicks, largely because it becomes a minimalist tone-poem of sorts for Adam Sandler (whose shtick finally gets exposed as horrific rather than funny) and Emily Watson (who is, like, ah-maaazing). This was one of the first films I ever assigned for my introductory film class for their final papers, which yielded the most dynamic set of papers I have ever read. Th
  • Reconstruction (2003): Even though Breaking the Waves is one of my favorite films ever, I tired of Dogme films from Denmark by the middle of the decade (this, despite my love for Dancer in the Dark). Hence, I found this truffle from Christoffer Boe (seen at Telluride) a true visual delight, with an intriguingly meta-narrative that was beautiful and painful at once.
  • The Triplets of Belleville (2003): Another Telluride find. As I was contemplating the really fantastic Pixar flicks throughout the decade -- especially the work of Brad Bird, Ratatouille and The Incredibles -- I found myself coming back to this largely wordless gem, another love poem for yesteryear's animation, even as it uses some cutting edge processes to achieve them. (The bicyclist's wheels, for example, are digitally rendered.) The film has a joyful soul that is tinged with melancholy, and made it truer than most of the non-animated films that we see.
  • Yi Yi (2000): Yet another Telluride find, and a surprise hit there in the same year that another Taiwanese film took most of the thunder. I could not imagine a three-hour-long film about contemporary Taiwan, performed by many non-actors, would be even remotely interesting. How very wrong I was: I was riveted throughout the screening, and have every time I have seen it since. This was also the reason I was profoundly sound when the director, Edward Yang, died toward the end of the decade.
  • Y tu mamá también (2001): You knew this was coming. After all, Alfonso Cuarón happens to be the topic of my new project. And, let's face it, those eyes at the top of this blog come from this film. I have now seen this startling movie at least a dozen times, sometimes for class, sometimes for myself, and I am still finding new elements to the film. I first saw this in DC at a preview screening with a lot of gray heads in the audience, most of whom were confused by the sex-laden road-trip without confronting the really nuanced commentary lying just beneath the surface. Cuarón was there -- and now, oh, how I wish I had said something. That his other two films (Children of Men and yes, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) also could have made this list may say something about my auteurist obsession -- but may also say something about the quality of his work as well.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


The current state of the weirdness of our movie-viewing culture (where we watch things on cable, on demand, online, on Netflix, on, Donder! on, Blitzen!) has resulted in the downsizing of Blockbuster. This should surprise absolutely no one, given their gigantic expansion nearly everywhere and the subsequent squeezing out of nearly every locally owned video store. (My own local store, Video Americain, is a mini-chain of four stores, and wonderfully eccentric. When you want to get, say Desk Set, you wonder whether it is listed under "Classics," "Katherine Hepburn," "Comedies" or "Walter Lang." Inevitably, you have to ask one of the semi-snotty employees. I love this place.) I have no love for Blockbuster whatsoever, given that they inevitably never had anything I wanted. At the one located 10 minutes away from my in-laws' place on Cape Cod, an employee finally admitted to me that although they receive virtually everything, anything that had not been rented in three months went on the "Previously Viewed For Sale" rack.

Actually, this is the only reason I ever liked Blockbuster: because the stuff I wanted would rue of quickly go on sale in the discount rack. This was particularly true of anything subtitled. ("Sir, you do realize that this movie is subtitled." "Yes, that's why I want it. The other ten in the basket are also subtitled.")

So, I have to say that the wonderful thing about the mass Blockbuster closing has been the sale. And because I don't need a copy of The Hangover, I can get all sorts of cool stuff that everyone has passed over. This is particularly cool now that all DVDs have gone down to $3 per disc. And hey, for me, this is a tax deduction! (Seriously, I'll probably use several of these in class; I already showed Hedwig and the Angry Inch as the final exam in my course on the musical.)

I had already passed through the store in Langley Park, MD a few weeks ago and hope to swing by the College Park one before they close when I get back to the DC area; yesterday, I cleaned out the one here in North Falmouth.

I can't be the only film geek doing this, however. When Hollywood Video closed last fall near campus, I picked up all sorts of cool stuff, including the Criterion version of Overlord; in Langley Park, I nabbed a whole bunch of Spanish-language stuff like Cilantro y Perejil and Tésis. I'm curious to know what other folks have picked up -- so, in an effort of full disclosure, here is what I nabbed from North Falmouth (and if you want to know why, just ask -- and I will tell why):
(Note: I'd actually like to pick up a copy of some Tyler Perry movie, but they were out of Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Can anyone suggest a better Tyler Perry?)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Be it resolved...

...that my New Year's resolution will be to revive this (and the other) blog. Oh yes, it will happen.