It’s hard to describe 25 year old Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner Xavier Dolan as anything but a wunderkind, even if you dislike his work. The rate of output, for one, is impressive, but the products themselves are astonishing. But what happens when an art house enfant terrible steps away from his comfort zone to deliver a straight (or, rather, queer) psychological thriller? Certainly one of the most outstanding, heart racing experiences I’ve had at the theater in ages.
Sometime during the Lynchian road trip, the bizarre adventure, the fever dream of cinematic history being, essentially looked over and destroyed, I fell in love with Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Maybe it was the episodic style, presenting one sequence to the next, beautifully contained and yet inseparable from the whole; maybe it was Denis Lavant’s transcendent performance, one that epitomized the very word: performance; maybe it was the delirious juxtaposition of youth and age, seemingly representing the ever changing medium it was allegorically documenting; perhaps it was the stylized transition from genre, style, and tone for each moment of the film, never predictable but always enticing; or maybe it was watching Kylie Minogue, that pop songstress so elegantly clothed in a simple beige jacket, contemplating the exact existential crisis that was not only applicable to the protagonist (if you can call him that), but to, again, the medium itself. That inherent weirdness and obscene aberrant quality of Holy Motors is part of why the film resonates so oddly and so strongly once you leave the theater. It is, in essence, not only a perfect response to the “celluloid vs. digital” debate (as well as the “End of Film” debate), it’s the perfect eulogy, although premature in my opinion, to film as a medium. It’s a swooning love letter to a powerful platform for which art can be as conventional or as surreal as it wants to be.
*MAJOR SPOILERS DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE!*
The audience might as well be sent down the rabbit hole, but instead, we are initially lead through a door, hidden in a wall, papered with trees. We are taking a walk into the woods, like a Grimm fairy tale modernized and appropriated to new technological and philosophical insight. Loosely inspired by a short story by ETA Hoffman, a man wakes up to hear the reactions of an audience in “the next room”. He uses his middle finger as a key and unlocks the door and takes a step into a grand cinema house, with an audience watching King Vidor’s film The Crowd. He peers over, watching the crowd, so intoxicated by the images on the screen. This is hardly the most startling image in the film, never mind the beginning of the sequence. What’s most startling about this sequence is a wide shot of the audience. Seeing it in a dark theater, this image is like looking into a mirror, and sends a jolt to the stomach. Reminiscent of a shot from Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, this one shot sets the tone for the film, where it will be as much about the audience as it will be the actor.
The Old Lady
The distinctive looking and yet ever chameleon-esque Denis Lavant portrays, amongst other things/people, Monsieur Oscar, who, at first, seems like a mild mannered business man with many an appointment spread throughout his day. Getting into the white limousine driven by the equally enigmatic Celine (Edith Scob), he speaks on his Bluetooth piece to someone about the business as a whole. It’s failing and, as he says, “we get the blame.” As subtle as this sounds, it’s one of many instances in which the focus is on film as a medium and its transformative ways and the waves of influence and impact it has. Film is failing and they get the blame. Who, exactly, is the “we” in this situation? The businessmen, the suit clad executive producers and studio heads? Should that answer be a yes, Carax jokingly pokes fun at their own martyrdom, pointing to the industry’s constant need for reinvention by making something old something new (3D, remakes, reboots, etc.). But, there is a slight acknowledgement that, really, reinvention is necessary for any artistic medium. Reinvention of the medium, how it is presented, even reinvention of the artist or performer.
After his phone call, he takes a look at the first “appointment”, which we only see as a file. Could this too allude to the fact that film is transitioning from celluloid to digital files? His first appointment then contrasts and juxtaposes that very idea, with Lavant putting on his first costume as an old lady, which recalls the old lady in Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy. Kieslowski’s visual metaphor is employed similarly, but does double time, working to show the struggle of age, but to also show that, while the woman is begging, she is being ignored by virtually everyone on the street. This is the first human iteration not only of classic performance, but of film itself. The people living in a contemporary world have no time for anything old (old movies, black and white, old people, etc.); they just want what’s new and whatever is fastest.
For the old lady, we never see how Oscar transforms into her, but anyone who wonders that will, of course, get a glimpse. The interior of the limousine, as anachronistic and quaint as limousines are (one of the main attractions for both Carax as a filmmaker and the film as a whole), is the film set, or perhaps the dressing room. It may be a hybrid of the two, but, like a traveling circus going from stop to stop, everything that Oscar needs is in there, even though it seems logistically impossible for certain things to fit (much like certain rooms, windows, and doors in Kubrick’s The Shining.)
The Motion Capture Room
From sitting at the deathbed at film, Oscar travels to the birth of something new: digital. As he walks towards his rendezvous point, the factory outside leaves an impression of what film has, essentially, always been: an industry. As soon as they realized you could make a profit off of movies, from the inception of Hollywood to the Star System to whatever the hell era we live in today, film has been an industry, and a cruel one at that. Notice that from Oscar travels from one end of the scale to the other, with (so far) nothing in between. It’s the cruelty of time passing you by without pity.
Oscar walks into a room full of laser, wearing some sort of dark, skin tight Lycra material with large, white bulbs on them. If you have ever watched a documentary on how Gollum was brought to life, or how characters in video games move around, you will understand, to some extent, what Oscar is doing: he’s in a motion capture studio. But why? Obviously, the nature of the film won’t permit that to be told explicitly, but Oscar elegantly does a set of acrobatics and fight choreography by himself, portraying, no doubt, a fight scene. He runs on a treadmill with a machine gun while a green screen behind him illustrates odd cubic structures. The artificiality of the sequence suggests what many people often argue whenever groups like the NRA clamor to blame films and video games for real life violence: it’s all fake. Oscar does his dance with death in the scene with no one and does it in a starkly naked studio. There is an argument to be made that violence in film, from the hyperrealism and cartoonish quality of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill to the more obvious realism of something like Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah: the point is, none of it is real. But, as the weird sex scene will tell you, it comes from reality: whatever sexuality and violence is portrayed in film, it’s portrayed as a reflection of the society that the film lies within contextually.
The video game aesthetic, then, also suggests youth’s dwindling interest with film. Admittedly, the one big thing video games have over the cinema is their interactive nature. You can do meaningless tasks like care for your pet or you can carry out a mission in a video game; in cinema, you can only watch. That somewhat obstructive nature between audience and action is why many play video games as opposed to watching film. I am certainly not claiming one as better than the other, simply noting the subtle commentary in the film.
For all of its explicit quality, the sex scene in the motion capture room isn’t technically explicit. Yes, two people, both in kind of ridiculous outfits, do very strange things to one another, but what you see and what you don’t see is blurred. You expect to see something, even if you don’t, and that audience expectation is aided by the actions and movements the actors make. Sexuality in cinema is at once taboo and yet no holds barred; paradoxical in nature.
The film doesn’t limit its own discourse merely on the transformative nature of film, but plays with genre semantics. There’s a crime segment, a domestic encounter with a daughter, a deliberately theatrical musical sequence, melodrama. Godard would be, in a way, proud of how Carax essentially treats everything as cinema.
The Beauty and the Beast
Oscar’s next appointment is where the project of Holy Motors technically originated from: he reprises a character from the anthology Tokyo! This segment is Carax’s monster movie, almost as if the Creature from the Black Lagoon were to wander into the streets of Paris and kidnap a beautiful girl. Even the music is straight from an old horror movie, with its rush of strings. The grotesque, zombified (?), flower eating freak plays the Beast while Eva Mendes plays the Beauty. On his way to kidnap the pulchritudinous model, he traverses through a cemetery, almost as if he is the living representation of death, however antithetical that sounds. He eats flowers, as aforementioned, and he also eats fingers. But for all the destruction he causes in the cemetery in Paris, he instantly recognizes beauty: he becomes immediately enamored of Mendes’ gorgeous model. Carax name drops Diane Arbus, and like the famed photographer, he shoots Oscar’s weird creature with fascination, though never quite demeaning him to a freak show that Arbus was occasionally guilty of. It’s the fascination of Beauty versus the Beast and what exactly constitutes one or the other. Carax shoots a close-up of the man’s face (however unpleasant that might be for the viewer), and the milky eye catches one’s attention. It’s about Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder, is it not? This is accentuated by the fact that, throughout this segment, Mendes is never terribly threatened or even frightened of the man. She is not quite submissive or subservient, but simply not threatened. Further working on the eye motif, the monster brings Mendes down to a catacomb, covers her exposed body, veils her face, but cuts slits for the eyes, which we see plainly. Then, you can jump to Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, which will have resonance throughout the film.
This juxtaposition of Beauty exposed or protected reminds one of a Madonna/Whore complex. Although the segment doesn’t lead in that direction, the idealized look of the model both bare and covered certainly conjures those images. It then isn’t as much the “male gaze” as the “monster gaze”. But, one wonders to what extent that the monster movie share its ties with something more exploitive. The monster in question bites off a poor photographer’s assistant’s finger, but he practically ogles Mendes. That exploitative nature, though, is subverted into something more Freudian, something more Oedipal in nature. While Mendes is veiled in what looks like something from traditional Indian culture, the monster strips naked, lies on the bench where Mendes is seated, and rests his head on her lap. She begins to sing him a lullaby. There’s a nurturing quality to this scene: it isn’t quite Stockholm syndrome, but perhaps a deep connection the two already had. There is, of course, the juxtaposition of his nudity and her lack of exposure, calling into question both, the objectification of women and the often lack thereof for men in film. Nary is there an erect penis in the cinema. Very rarely is there a penis period. But, here, we have it all.
The mystical quality of forests is explored in Shakespeare, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Holy Motors. We enter into the woods and end up in a movie theater. We drive through a forest, directly recalling Eyes without a Face again. It seems strange that no actual segments take place in a forest, but, when a forest appears, it is always like a tunnel that leads from point A to point B. The forest is the Rabbit Hole, as much a medium of transportation as the limos.
The Sins of the Daughter
The segment that follows is one of the more “explicit” ones to show the contrast, almost battle of tradition between the old and the new. Oscar inhabits an odd realism that, unlike the previous segments, was not apparent. Playing a working class father this time around, he picks up his daughter from a party, one that blares self referentially “I Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Kylie Minogue. His “daughter”’s name is Angele, and while playing the introverted wallflower in the bathroom while everyone else has a good time, she sprinkles glitter on herself, the last remnant of true childhood relegated to fake fairy dust. The issues at hand, primarily the introverted personality of the daughter, who is as angelic as her name suggests, pays tribute to the same kind of angsty plot lines as the films of John Hughes. Carax plays the demographic card here in a more obvious way, portraying the various audiences that film has, instead of lumping them collectively as one thing.
The father makes accusations about the daughter’s personality, even her very youth. Demographics aside, the old guards of celluloid think very little of the newness of digital cinema, as it first gains confidence in itself and then wallows back. The father accuses the daughter of lying (which, in this case, she did), but the father is too confident in his own honesty. He seems to spout a less direct version of Godard’s iconic quote, “Film is truth at twenty-four frames per second.” The tangibility of the medium, though, doesn’t affect its honesty, does it? (Check out my essay on the anthological horror film V/H/S for more on that V/H/S might be called the “trashy, less good Holy Motors“.) In an abstract way, although to assert this might be a stretch, the daughter, being digital cinema, is at her Dogme 95 phase; that awkward moment in puberty where you are experimenting with what you are capable of as a person/medium. Digital cinema is at its birth and experimental period, before it becomes a much more attractive option (which makes me sound like a cad). But, like Dogme 95 (which only lasted a short period of time, as far as film movements go), must “live with itself”, the punishment given to the daughter for lying. But, truth is relative, especially in film.
Although we are told that we, the audience, are about to be given a standard break (standard in the sense that older films used to do this), Carax isn’t about to let you walk in the halls or to the concession stand during a typical intermission. He is just as invested in having you seated for the break as he is for the rest of the film. So, the “Entr’acte” is only misleading if you read it as saying “Intermission”. Its actual translation is “Interval” (according to the onscreen subtitles), and, much like every other segment in the film, works in its own contained little world as well as with the rest of the film. Monsieur Oscar is out of his costume (or is he? Probably not, now that I think of it) and leads a band of musicians, primarily playing accordions, to the sound of RL Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride”, covered by Doctor L.
The title of the song alone seems to relate to letting scar ride through the night, from appointment to appointment in the limousine. The passivity of the title makes it seem as if this is just part of the job.
It might be filled with laughter and mirth at times, as more and more members join the walking troupe and Lavant lets out a cackle. In one glorious long tracking shot, the scene recalls Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (as Vincent and Mia walk into Jack Rabbit Slim’s) and Scorsese’s GoodFellas (as Henry walks into a club) in its fluidity and focus on the subject walking as well as their surroundings. Look closely and you can surmise that they are playing in a church, a place that has often condemned the great pieces of artistic genius in cinema.
This subversion of musicality itself might be best epitomized in a lull in the music, when Lavant suddenly shouts “Trois, Douze, Merde!” Translating as “Three, Twelve, Shit!” Carax refuses to bend to the typical musical sequence found in the theatricality of the 1950s and earlier, as the general subversion of the medium throughout the film. Blasphemy on the medium? Maybe so. Maybe part of admitting the death of something is recognizing its flaws as opposed to inherently placing it upon a pedestal in an extremely unrealistic and idealistic way.
They won’t stand still, they won’t stop. The band plays on.
Therefore, the title also fits as before the song finishes, we find Oscar back at home in his limo, getting ready for the next assignation
Oscar’s next segment seems fit in a film detailing a gang war, and it is here that we get a glimpse inside the file. So, a combination of espionage and gang violence? As the segments grow weirder and, for lack of a better word, more Lynchian, their nature as an amalgamation of a billion different things seems more obvious.
There’s a page that says “Target” with a picture on it (unsurprisingly, that of Oscar himself in a new disguise) and a weapon (a switchblade). The mission matters less in comparison to the concept of doubles. Oscar ends up facing himself. Hitchcock played around with doubles throughout his career, most notably in Vertigo and Strangers on a Train. However, if Oscar somehow represents the medium itself in one way or another, watching the bizarre confrontation play out is like watching VHS and Betamax duke it out. Here, doubles represent that failed transition from one medium to another, where two are practically the same but one has the upper hand, for one reason or another. And, as Oscar comes out alive by the skin of his teeth, one is reminded about how Blu-ray narrowly came out on top of HD DVD “back in the day”.
The execution of the scene, though, seems to fit the fun, exploitive environment of something like Enter the Dragon, but retaining the same style and respect as the standoff in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The goriness, however, is more Grand Guignol than either of the two films. It ends up being far more grotesque than one expects.
As Oscar dresses the dead man up, there’s a switch of identity: the actor has no identity but the characters he portrays and the lives he inhabits.
The Beauty of the Act
Michael Piccoli, who is a titan of the cinema, has already settled into the limo as the fake wounded Oscar gets back in, and their conversation is, while very expository, enlightening nonetheless. Piccoli, whoever he is, comments that Oscar looks tired, that he doesn’t seem to enjoy his work as much as he used to. That the audience doesn’t believe what they’re seeing. Here, the audience is explicitly referred to, as if the theater goers aren’t there or, at least, aren’t on a level for Piccoli to really acknowledge. This makes sense. Dressed in a suit, rotund, and smoking a cigar, Piccoli inhabits the stereotypical persona of an executive producer. While the producer reprimands the actor for the work and the lack of audience, the actor says that it’s about the change.
This piece of exposition might hurt the film, but I enjoyed it. Oscar refers to the size of the cameras, perhaps criticizing the democratization of cinema? The old guard does that sort of thing, but Holy Motors was shot on digital, for economic reasons. Carax himself has reservations about filming on digital. That criticism of democratization, though, seems to be criticized in and of itself. Oscar continues to lament, the victim of nostalgia. In this way, Oscar plays the old fool, yearning for the days of yore. But, nonetheless, we sympathize with him.
What is the most pressing point of the conversation, the most you can take away from it? It’s all about the beauty of the act. The many definitions of “beauty” from taste to even demographic are briefly acknowledged. Both admit that it’s all about the eye of the beholder. But, again, it’s the beauty of the act. Cinema is beautiful in everything it achieves.
In that short conversation, Carax lays out the thesis of the entire film.
As Oscar and Celine travel in the car out and about Paris, occasionally a monitor will come down to reveal what is on the outside of the car. But, as opposed to merely showing whatever the camera on the car sees in a very plain lens, the perception of the camera itself changes. From night vision goggles to an intoxicating Solaris to a Dali-esque dream pixelization, the world changes depending on how we choose to see it. . Back projection is also used as they ride in the car, but it doesn’t just look like Paris. Instead, if you look closely, it seems more like a negative, thus recalling Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus. It’s a simple point, but effective nonetheless. It’s how we see things that affect how we live
I mentioned that the tracking shot of the Interval almost paid homage to Scorsese’s GoodFellas, but even more so, a the next segment does that. After Piccoli’s “get with the times, Oscar” executive departs, Oscar jumps out of the car after seeing someone (himself, again, no doubt) with a gun and a ski mask with barbed wire, something that looks like it came out of Lady Gaga’s closet. He shoots the lookalike (again, the transition battle), but the bodyguards (?) shoot him. Nevertheless, his faithful Céline treats him as if he should just get up and not miss the next appointment.
The shooting without reason, without motive, and without method behind madness may slyly and nastily criticize the NRA-inspired rants on film violence. The nonsensicalness of it all doesn’t especially play well without any explanation, and the short length of the scene is almost devoid of context. But that may be the point. In reality, there if often very little context, despite the attempts of many to provide it. Back to Scorsese: GoodFellas provides context for the crimes when it needs to. Beyond that, what more do you have beyond the desire for power? And, in the hierarchy of cinema, there’s always power to be had.
The Death Bed
What Michael Haneke’s Amour did in two hours Carax did in ten minutes. That’s not to say one is better than the other, but the essence of both scenes are fairly similar, but both ring with resonance in different ways. Carax has the old man in the death bed visited by his daughter (or is it niece?). As he lies dying, the young woman sits there, and their conversation is filled with emotion. Perhaps it is the same daughter from an earlier segment reincarnated, digital cinema finally taking a new aesthetic as celluloid fades away.
But death doesn’t happen. Not for real anyways. The scene ends quite explicitly, suggesting that the entire thing was, as we know, a production for an audience. Death doesn’t happen in the cinema, so why should we suggest that cinema is dead?
Aside from “Let My Baby Ride”, the penultimate sequence of the film is my favorite. After a near run in with another limo with another actor, Oscar gets out of the car and recognizes the actress. They have a past. And they’re about to tell you about the Past (capital P) in one gorgeous song. The actress, played by none other than pop singer Kylie Minogue (whose hit single played in the film earlier), is waiting for her partner and what might be her final role.
Oscar and the Actress, who goes by Eva Grace (Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly?) walk into an abandoned building, where strewn on the floor are mannequins. They’re like the bodies of past actors and performers, and beside them, as the two walk through the building, are cameras of all shapes and sizes. As Minogue sings what is essentially a song questioning the self, the performance, and the art, we again must contemplate the peripeteia from medium to medium.
In such a short song, Minogue is able to tell a story and yet convey the very thesis of the film all at once. The point may be that the permutations of cinema are as interconnected to our lives as any other emotion, to an extent where no one quite realizes the importance. Cinema is part of our lives.
There’s that nagging question of the title, “Who Were We?”, which applies existentially to Oscar and Eva. Who were they before they began performing? Is it so much a part of them that they can barely recall the past? Can we ourselves recall a past without film, or some form of art? Art is part of our identity, as much as the viewer and participant as the creator. It appeals to the Leanian melodrama of Brief Encounter, but avoids going overboard. Minogue hits all the right notes.
Her performance isn’t over, though. They reach the rooftop, and Oscar leaves. The man whom Eva was to meet comes and the two are ready for their final role, Eva as a stewardess on her final night. She jumps to her death, a falling starlet. But, as scene with Oscar himself previously with a switchblade to the neck, the old man dying in bed, and the random shooting, the performance never dies. It just goes on.
The Way Home
After the sublime sequence, Oscar is done for the night. In a very, very odd sequence, he is brought home to a set of identical houses and is given a key, part of his mission. The target is his own family. What surprises me about this shot is that, although there is a good deal of importance suggested regarding the key, like a MacGuffin out of Mulholland Drive, there is no insert shot. Which, altogether, forces the viewer to reevaluate their expectations. Inside, his family is… a bunch of monkeys. I have no idea what the hell that means. But the key could be, again, the power to democratize not only cinema, but art and life itself. It’s the key to understanding. Or is it? The key, instead of representing any one thing is, like the film itself, just another piece of the deliriously beautiful puzzle.
If cars could talk, if cinema could talk, maybe this is what it would have to say. The last sequence, after the gorgeous Edith Scob finally dons her mask, paying homage to her role in Eyes without a Face, involves the limos at the Holy Motors garage talking amongst themselves. It’s the old guards talking with one another, probably, debating the merits of their job, how they may be out of the job soon, etc. Black and White are the cars, the medium old and anachronistic and strange in a much different world. Like the old guards, the cars are starting to realize their place. The cars’ desire to sleep outweighs their desire to continually grumble and argue about experience and change. Carax is putting the argument to rest. It’s the medium that matters. Like Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message.
The above several thousand words probably do not matter in the least. As minutely ambitious as this segment by segment breakdown might be, I would just like to say that I loved this film. I avoided writing about it for a long time because how could I compete with Andreas Stoehr’s excellent piece on the film? We both agree that this film subverts cinema as a whole, constantly battling against itself, reconciling with change, and encounters the “ghosts of the past”. That’s the beauty of it. Depending on whom you ask, it embraces and criticizes the transformative nature of film. It does what everyone does with something they love that changes. Like a good TV show that suddenly goes down the toilet, it praises what it once was, what it can be, but also condemns what it is becoming and the opportunities it wastes. In the end, like that TV show, the film embraces its existence as a whole. Because it has become so integral to how one lives their life (yeah, I know people who swear by Mad Men, and I still haven’t seen it yet).
Cinema is everything, to an extent where you could argue that the performances that Oscar makes aren’t performances at all. Allegorically, Oscar may just be living his life. He may be inhabiting lives, but maybe we all are performing for someone or something. (Enter: Gender Performativity Theory with Judith Butler!) Like the Bard wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage!”
Holy Motors is a stunningly bold entry into the cinematic canon, as frenzied and beautiful as anything Luis Bunuel or David Lynch has made. It is dizzyingly beautiful accompanied by technical prowess and gorgeous cinematography that is fitted appropriately for every scene. And, of course, Denis Lavant is the star. He is probably the French equivalent to Daniel Day-Lewis, and much like Day-Lewis, I have no idea what Lavant actually looks like. Underneath all that makeup and despite his distinctive features, he truly embodies the performance. Stanislavsky would be proud.
Holy Motors isn’t just, as Michael Piccoli’s large executive says, about the Beauty of the Act. It’s about the Beauty of the Art.
“Who Were We?”
Welcome to the penultimate installment of my top 101 favorite films of all time. Here, you’ll see: not shiny vampires, heists and cons, extreme Asians, adult fairy tales, war, black and white and color, the magic of film, the magic of romance, nostalgia, voyeurism, games, subverted tropes, a game of Chess, sleepy theater projectionists, all fun and no play, and the film that did what Breathless could not.
61. Nosferatu (1927) | Directed by F.W. Murnau
Murnau’s notorious illegal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a stylish, creepy film that practically invented the horror film as we know it. Twilight can go suck it, for it’s Max Schrek’s Count Orlock that’s the original cinematic vampire. With gorgeous cinematography, despite it being very expressionistic, what Murnau did differently was he filmed on location much of the time. There’s still a warped sense of humor and horror behind each wall, and the shadows play tricks on the mind, as every haunted house should. Murnau’s horror film is unrivaled for its originality and technical experimentation.
62. Ocean’s Eleven (2001) | Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh created his own Rat Pack with a remake of the ‘60s heist film. Gathering some of the biggest stars of the time, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and George Clooney, Soderbergh creates a very memorable and stylish heist movie that would change Hollywood heist movies forever. Soderbergh’s strength is that he is able to balance a labyrinthine plot with marvelous technical mastery. The director utilizes auteuristic techniques for what many would consider a fairly mainstream effort. Its inventive cinematography, the colorful palette reminiscent of Sin City, and the huge cast are all high points of the film. Regardless of how derivative a film may look just by a trailer or synopsis, when you have Steven Soderbergh behind the camera, all bets are off.
63. Oldboy (2004) | Directed by Park Chan-wook
The Korean crime noir sky rocketed the Asian Extreme movement to fame in the United States. Oldboy is, for one reason or another, absolutely infamous as a super violent, super gratuitous, and superbly written horror movie. Only one of those things is correct. Winner of the Grand Prix Jury Award at Cannes, the film, like I said, has its origins in film noir, with its first person narration and the fragmented memories. Is the film violent? Sure, but it is hardly as shocking as people make it out to be. Is it a horror film? Not at all. Violence does not a horror movie make. Park Chan-wook is actually quite skilled at leaving most of the violence to suggestion. Quick cuts and great editing aid the effect, actually making the scenes more visceral than graphic violence could have ever done it. The film is grittier and darker than the other films of Chan-wook’s thematic Vengeance Trilogy, but it remains incredibly effective nonetheless. Oldboy is one of the most incredible experiences to ever see, and you won’t see the ending coming.
64. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) | Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Del Toro’s adult fairy tale is a dream and a nightmare all at once. Using traditional elements from mythology and children’s fairy tales, Guillermo Del Toro fashions a political and moral allegory that only become more interesting with each subsequent viewing. There are a lot of things to love about this film, from its acting, its cinematography, etc., but what I like most about it is the visual realization of a completely different world. Though it takes place around the time of the Spanish Civil War, the world that Del Toro creates is a unique vision that incorporates many familiar elements. The visual symbolism adds depth to the film (such as the ever frequent Rule of Three). The end is heartbreaking and startlingly real. In this film, Del Toro proves that he is a well read, and skillful director, capable of creating his own world in film.
65. Paper Moon (1973) | Directed by Peter Bogdonavich
Bogdonavich is better known for his realistic portrayal of lost teens in the midst of the Korean War in The Last Picture Show, but his Depression-era tale of a con artist and the partner in crime who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter is the most fun. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum, make the perfect team, and it is almost frightening to see such a young girl who can keep her father on her toes, both within in the film as a con artist and in terms of the acting. The gorgeous black and white photography and the jovial soundtrack are juxtaposed against the dark setting of the film. But worry not, this film is funny. With a hilarious turn from Madeline Khan, Paper Moon is a funny and sweet look at a slightly dysfunctional family.
66. Paths of Glory (1957) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
What I would surmise as the greatest anti-war film ever made, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory would set up a recurring theme that would be featured throughout his career, including Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. Portraying war as a machine that breaks down and destroys men, Paths of Glory is the story of a group of men in the French military in WWI who are sent on a suicide mission, but when they refuse and return unsuccessful and alive, they are accused of cowardice. Part film about war, part court drama, and all riveting emotional commentary on war, Kirk Douglas gives a brilliant performance and Kubrick eloquently and masterfully directs the most powerful message against war ever made.
67. Pleasantville (1998) | Directed by Gary Ross
TV in the 1950’s was quaint and retained a façade of family values. It was clean family fun. When the world is disrupted with reality in the form of art that challenges the norm for creativity, sex that challenges social values, and ideological changes, the transition is not smooth. But Pleasantville, with its brilliant use of color and black and white, presents a very real problem in the world today: acceptance of change. The people of the TV show within the film, a hybrid of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, amongst others, are xenophobic and closed minded and incredibly use to routine (and terrible jokes). That changes when two teenagers from the real world are sucked into the TV and trapped. It starts off as a very quaint, funny film, but moves into being a serious commentary on society’s perceptions of others. Incredibly clever and visually astonishing, Pleasantville finds new relevance with each viewing.
68. The Prestige (2006) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
The man behind Memento and The Dark Knight Trilogy returned to his psychedelic roots after Batman Begins with this mind bogglingly perfect metaphor about the beauty and pain of filmmaking. Nolan takes sleight of hand seriously, and throughout the film, literally, as two magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) go at it by trying to one up each other in their respective acts. Not only that, they also, you know, like ruining one another’s lives. But it’s all a magic trick. Through the three phases of the magic trick, the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige, Nolan creates an incredible illusion for the audience. The bottom line of The Prestige: everything about film is magic.
69. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) | Directed by Woody Allen
What could be lovelier than the story of a woman who is in love with the movies falling for a man who jumps right off the screen to court her? The answer is nothing. Although director Woody Allen intended the film to be a lot more “esoteric” than it turned out, highlighting how disappointing reality can be and how much more appealing fantasy is, The Purple Rose of Cairo is quite frothy and intelligent at the same time. One of the few films of Allen’s to explore fantasy (the other being Midnight in Paris), Jeff Daniels does a superb job playing the handsome and naïve screen character, an archeologist, and the rising star who plays the archeologist. Mia Farrow takes on the role of the neurotic, and does so splendidly. Full of wit and romance, it’s the best thing a film lover, and one who frequently falls in love with fictional characters, could ever imagine.
70. Radio Days (1987) | Directed by Woody Allen
Often compared to Fellini’s Amarcord, Woody Allen’s slice of nostalgia is one of his best films. Narrated by Allen and illustrating a wonderfully romanticized past through various episodes and vignettes, Radio Days is a beautifully fun portrait of the past. Allen would explore the power of nostalgia later again in Midnight in Paris, but it seems more light hearted here. Yes, that’s a very young Seth Green portraying a young Allen. Radio Days is fun and captures the world of a romantic remembering the best times of his childhood perfectly.
71. Rango (2011) | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Rango is the perfect example of an animated film that just so happens to be aimed at kids, but whose subverted subject matter is elegantly and fantastically handled. It’s a quasi-Western about a lizard that, as the convention holds, pretends to be something he is not. Conventions notwithstanding, the dialogue, allusions, and voice work are enough to wipe any of the inconsistencies out of mind. The animation, however… will blow your mind. Industrial Light and Magic, you know the guys who brought Star Wars to life, make their first feature film and it is gorgeous. It’s photorealistic to the point where you have to squint to make sure it’s only computer generated imagery. Johnny Depp is wonderful, of course. With a story ripped out of Chinatown, Rango superbly goes where all animated films go but few do with such panache: self-reflexivity and meta-humor.
72. Rear Window (1954) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock, I like to think, not only enjoyed scaring audiences and leaving their stomach in knots from tension, but also enjoyed challenging the audience as much as any auteur likes to. In Rear Window, he makes the audience complicit in voyeurism. James Stewart is the photographer stuck up in his apartment in a wheel chair with nothing to do but spy on his neighbors that live across from him. When he suspects one of them for murder, well, you know what happens next. It’s typically suspenseful for a Hitchcock film, but it really engages the mind in ethical decisions. To what extent are we just as guilty as Stewart in the voyeurism? (This technique would also find relevance in Michael Haneke’s Caché.) And were he/we not watching, would this man have gotten away with murder? It’s those kinds of questions that make Rear Window such a compelling thriller.
73. The Red Balloon (1965) | Directed by Albert Lamorisse
Lamorisse’s short film is a glorious, lighter than air ode to childhood. In a small world where balloons have a life of their own, the pure joy and gaiety of the film make it one of the most delightful gifts film has to offer. The photography is sweet and captures the saccharine mood perfectly. Perfectly tender and heartfelt, The Red Balloon is a pleasure.
74. Saw (2004) | Directed by James Wan
While it may have ushered a new wave of horror movies under the sub-genre “torture porn”, James Wan’s debut feature Saw is actually a smartly written and taut psychological thriller. The film lingers more on the ethical decisions than the final results of the “games”, and is reliant on a fairly clever nonlinear narrative. The twists and turns in the story are convincing in this film, and, though it gave birth to many a sequel offspring, its ending isn’t so ambiguous that it called for any of the sequels. Although the acting is stale and overwrought (I blame Cary Elwes), it is sustainable primarily on its script. Saw is actually a very chilling film.
75. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) | Directed by Edgar Wright
While I was never much into video games or comic books, even one mildly acquainted with the style of 8-bit games and panel to panel comics should love Scott Pilgrim. The film’s visual inventiveness is one of the best things about it, recreating the same tone and sound effects one would find in a classic arcade game. Therefore, arcade and comic in jokes abound. The film also delivers script wise, featuring a wildly clever screenplay with fast paced dialogue, as well as a very fun soundtrack. While Michael Cera may feel comfortable, at times too comfortable, in his awkward archetype, here it suits him well without being insufferable. There’s a certain amount of deluded confidence in his character which makes his role funnier. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the love interest Ramona, and she gives her character some nice depth and a sense of vulnerability. Scott Pilgrim is a fun and wild ride, a game you’ll want to play again, long after your coins have run out.
76. Scream (1996) | Directed by Wes Craven
Horror started getting postmodern and incredibly aware of itself when Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson brought Scream to the screen. While at once parodying and revitalizing the once dead and dying slasher genre, Williamson’s sharp screenplay and Craven’s tight directing brought horror to the forefront once again. Playing on the tropes that were so very well known, Craven and his gang set up the rules to a successful franchise, and made his film a call for smarter horror films. The allusions and humor run rampant throughout the film. And it forever immortalized the single best question to ask around Halloween: “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
77. The Seventh Seal (1957) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman
If you’ve heard me complain about Godard’s sledgehammer approach to philosophy, the filmmaker I immediately run to escape that is Ingmar Bergman. Capable of moving an audience and conveying his deep personal thoughts on life and death without bashing you in the face with a shovel, the perfect example of his technique is The Seventh Seal. Fantastically atmospheric, with moments of witty humor, Bergman’s bleak film about the meaning of life and death is both entertaining and without a doubt one of the most philosophically deep films ever made. It gives a whole new meaning to “Do you want to play a Game?”
78. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Directed by Buster Keaton
Bringing together a love of film and magic, Sherlock Jr. is probably Keaton’s most entertaining film, and undoubtedly his funniest. Some of his most enjoyable stunts are in this film, but the most magical sequence in silent cinema is in Sherlock Jr. After falling asleep at the projector, Keaton finds himself jumping into the screen and his environment changes from one place, to another, his body forcing itself to adapt. It’s one of the cleverest scenes ever made, especially within the silent era. And Sherlock Jr. is one of the most delightful films from the era as well.
79. The Shining (1980) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The Shining is a crazy amalgam of horror, suspense, chills, psychoanalysis, metaphor, and truly disturbing images. While there is much to analyze about the film, on a purely visceral level, it’s one of the scariest films ever made. Nicholson is perfect as the mad patriarch Jack Torrence, while Shelley Duvall is sadly underrated in a brilliant performance as his long suffering wife. The brutal shoot took a toll on the actors, which make their performances all the stronger. Kubrick’s stylish and skillful direction is all over the film, for, what is it more than Kubrick doing horror? It’s almost unbelievable the mileage Kubrick gets from this film, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats at all times. There’s never a dull moment in The Shining.
80. Shoot the Piano Player (1960) | Directed by François Truffaut
Sure, Godard can play the tribute game too, and while everyone likes to attribute Breathless as the film that shaped the New Wave, it’s Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player that did it too, and did it enjoyably. The comedy is deadpan, the action ripped from Hollywood noirs, and the romance believable and naturalistic. It’s so convincing in its adoration for Hollywood movies that it, at times, feels like a Hollywood gangster film simply made by a Frenchman. Truffaut’s film is a loving tribute to the films that inspired him.
Welcome back, to my continuing series of my top 101 films! In case you missed it, here’s part 2!
Welcome back to my continuing series of my favorite 101 films of all time, where you’ll encounter: wood chippers, tanks, “Nazi Julie Andrews”, Beauty and the Beast, something precious, whiskey, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whistled, Nabokov smiling, something too gay to function, the end of the world, memory problems, a smile, and two tragic heroines, who happen to be hookers.
41. Fargo (1996) Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Most of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’ve observed, tend to be neo-noirs disguised under some other sort of other genre clichés. However, their dark classic Fargo is just a straight up noir, studying the lives of criminals, a police officer, a mild mannered guy with a lot of debt, and the small town residents of North Dakota with their funny accents. The Coens described where they grew up as “Siberia with family themed restaurants”, and that description seems to be a good metaphor for the perfect blend of comedy and suspense. The film is dark and cold, but also completely hilarious. Fargo is perfect, dontcha know?
42. GoldenEye (1995) | Directed by Martin Campbell
I have always asserted that the best James Bond films are simply the best espionage films. It works outside of the series and can stand on its own. This is just as true as Martin Campbell’s first Bond effort, GoldenEye, which ushered in Pierce Brosnan as Double O Seven for the first time. Bridging the gap between the hokey escapism of the previous14 films and the gritty realism of the Craig era, GoldenEye works well because aside from a couple key scenes and the fact that, as per usual, Bond recites his name, it doesn’t feel like a Bond film, therefore not weighted by certain expectations. Even if the expectations were there, it would surpass them, and rightly so. GoldenEye was a fantastic way for Bond to enter the ‘90s.
43. In the Loop (2009) | Directed by Armando Iannucci
In the Loop is the Dr. Strangelove for the 21st century. The terrific film delves into the world of British politics and profanely satirizes everything. If it weren’t so gut bustingly funny, it would be deeply depressing to realize how incompetent some of these people are. The screenplay is incredible, its language so vulgar and funny that it shed new light on certain topics. And added some insults to my lexicon. (“Nazi Julie Andrews!”) Based loosely on the BBC show The Thick of It, In the Loop spectacularly mocks the fog of war.
44. Kill Bill (2003/2004) | Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Kill Bill was Tarantino’s pop art collage. Stealing (or borrowing, whatever you prefer) everything under the sun to create a fast paced, frenetic film, it’s a playscape for the senses. The visceral thrills are second to none, as Tarantino shows off how much he knows about film, provides a badass female lead fantastically played by Uma Thurman, and seems to have an incredibly fun time.
45. King Kong (2005) | Directed by Peter Jackson
If there has ever been a contemporary remake that’s been done right, it is this one. Peter Jackson’s gorgeously realized film is a stunner in every way. The level of detail, the characterizations, and the look of the film. The best thing about it is, though, the Beauty, Ann Darrow (a charming Naomi Watts) and the Beast, Kong (Andy Serkis is a genius, did you know that?). The love that Kong feels for Ann is so beautiful and so real that the ending breaks my heart every time. Animated with integrity, Kong’s fall from grace is painful and beautiful all at once. No one brings me to tears more often than the utterance of “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
46. Kuroneko (1968) | Directed by Kaneto Shindo
This Japanese horror film with a feminist twist features some of the most stunning cinematography in a horror film. Deriving much of the action and movement from traditional Noh Theater, the stage is lit for ghostly shimmers, as a vengeful woman and her mother, who sometimes appear as cats, rip the throats out from samurais. Its plot is fine, but it is undoubtedly a showcase for the presentation, from the beautiful costumes and sets to the dreamlike cinematography. Spectacularly creepy, it’s like dancing with the demons in the pale moonlight.
47. The Lady Vanishes (1938) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
This seems to be Hitchcock at his jauntiest. He may have made other light dark comedies, and even one deliberate comedy, but The Lady Vanishes is his frothiest film yet. Some of the techniques that would become Hitch’s trademark are featured in the film, but whatever the sense of foreboding; it is driven away by how amusing and funny it is. Its romance and the “opposites attract” would actually leave a little bit of a legacy, with Carrie Fisher quoting the film in When Harry Met Sally… (“You’re the most contemptible man I’ve ever met!”) Hitch keeps the audience entertained by both the comedy and the mystery, but even noted film historians have started watching the film with the intent to analyze it heavily and given up, lying back, and relaxing their ride on Hitch’s train.
48. Lady Vengeance (2005) | Directed by Park Chan-wook
I always go back and forth between this and Oldboy as to which is better. Both are part of a thematic trilogy from Chan-wook, and on days when the Lady takes the cake, she really takes it. The emotional resonance in this film is extraordinary. A beautiful study of revenge and redemption, Lady Vengeance sticks out for its lush colors (or not, if you watch the excellent Fade to White version, in which scene by scene, the film desaturates) and its very Murder on the Orient Express-like conclusion. The treatment revenge has in this film is, in a way, less harsh than in Oldboy. Out protagonist comes to realize what she’s doing and how revenge itself is changing her far more quickly and halfway through the film, her motivations change slightly. It remains one of the most beautiful thrillers of the last decade.
49. The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions (2001 – 2003) | Directed by Peter Jackson
There is not very much to say about Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy that hasn’t been said before. Though the pacing is at times problematic (how would you deal with the material?), it’s extravagant and amazingly huge in scope. If anyone could ever tackle these tomes and bring them to life, it was Jackson.
50. Lost in Translation (2003) | Directed by Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola is an expert at capturing the meandering reality of loneliness. She did it, probably in a flashier way, with The Virgin Diaries, she did it with more focus on the costumes than on the plot in Marie Antoinette, but she explored the topic perfectly in Lost in Translation, which won her an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Two lonely people in a place where there is a significant language barrier meet and… do not sleep together. Instead, they find in each other kindred souls and a kind of intimacy that is unmatched with merely sex. The exploration of strangers in a lonely place offering solace to one another is pitch perfect in every scene. It turns out that existential ennui translates perfectly for the screen.
51. M (1931) | Directed by Fritz Lang
Having seen this film several times, there is no way that I will not think of Lang’s noir-ish crime thriller M when I hear the foreboding notes of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. Whistled faux-innocently by the ever creepy Peter Lorre is the first sign that nothing good is to come of this. Almost a critique of the police procedural as we know it, the deliberate pacing, sparsely framed shots, and beautiful chiaroscuro all add up to what is an indelible experience. (And, yes, I do consider it a part of German Expressionism).
52. Manhattan* (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
I’ve gone back and forth between Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan for what feels like ages, but I decided the latter would be in my top ten. More the comedic drama than Annie Hall’s dramatic comedy, the bittersweet tale of unrequited love and intellectuals in New York is a masterpiece. The film’s one liners are perfect, but underneath is the pathos and feeling of desire that everyone feels in the film. The Gershwin filled score adds to these tender moments of drama and romance, aiding the tone perfectly. And, of course, the film features some of the best black and white cinematography ever on screen by the Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis. While some may love New York, I, myself, love Manhattan.
53. The Manchurian Candidate (2004) | Directed by Jonathan Demme
Here’s another remake that was very successful in terms of quality. Though, re-adaptation seems a little more appropriate. Demme re-appropriates the themes of the original film, which circled around Communism, and used them in a contemporary context. Taking place after Desert Storm, the film gears in on various medical testing and the state of terrorism in the real world. It makes for an effective and taut thriller. Live Schreiber and Meryl Streep are incredible in the film.
54. Mean Girls (2004) | Directed by Mark Waters
You may think it odd for me to have this film on my Top 101, but I truly adore it. Tina Fey’s acute study of the teenage girl in high school and the desire for popularity is one of the smartest teen films to ever be made. Endlessly quotable, its astute observations (as I mentioned in my lengthy review) are more than true. Even at the small school I go to, there are things that have happened that have reminded me of Mean Girls. Part of this realism is that the film is based on a nonfiction book, the other part being just good writing. Mean Girls is supported by outstanding performances from its cast, including Lindsay Lohan, Lizzy Caplan, and Rachel McAdams. Yes, I’m going to say it: This movie is so fetch!
55. Melancholia* (2011) | Directed by Lars von Trier
It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.
56. Memento (2000) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough art house film is an incredible exploration into memory, denial, and crime. A gloriously fantastic neo-noir with a tight script, amongst the things that make this film extraordinary is the nonlinear narrative. Yes, my friend, linearity goes out the window, as it is played backwards. If I didn’t love this film, I wouldn’t have written my extended essay on it. Guy Pearce plays a damaged man searching for his wife’s killer, but as we go further back into his mind and into the past, the things that are revealed are chilling yet incredibly human. Nolan starts playing his games for the big time in Memento. Stunning in every frame, Memento is one of the greatest film noirs ever made.
57. Midnight in Paris (2011) | Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.
58. Modern Times (1936) | Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin avoided sound for as long as he could, and nearly a decade after The Jazz Singer had premiered with its revolutionary synchronized soundtrack, Chaplin was still holding tight keeping his Little Tramp’s lips sealed. The film is not completely silent. Modern Times incorporates some sound effects and probably half a dozen lines spoken by minor characters. And while Modern Times is undeniably hysterical, heartwarming, and as good of a showcase of Chaplin’s pantomime abilities as any of his films from a great filmography, Modern Times provides some interesting social commentary about consumerism, labor workers, and the industrialization of America. The film also ushered in the classic jazz standard “Smile”, which would be famously sung by Nat King Cole. With its ambiguous, but happy ending, Chaplin would move forward with technology and social awareness in his films.
59. Moon (2009) | Directed by Duncan Jones
Duncan Jones’ debut feature is a about a man on the moon, who mines, and feels lonely. Yes, the existential crisis of loneliness in space. It sounds rather trite, but with sharp visuals, a gorgeous and atmospheric score by Clint Mansell, and absolutely stunning performance from Sam Rockwell, Moon is a star amongst emotional dramas. Sam Rockwell’s performance of Sam Bell is the “every man”, a man who has been working and mining for the last three years on the moon. When his time on the moon is about to close and he gears up to head back home, he realizes that he has become so attached to solitude, he does not understand how he will cope with the change in environment. It’s a beautiful, subtle, and at times fantastically suspenseful film.
60. Nights of Cabiria/Vivre sa Vie* (1957/1962) | Directed by Federico Fellini/Jean-Luc Godard
The prostitution of society, religion, magic, celebrity, emotion, and money are the subjects of two of the greatest films ever made. I see Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and Godard’s Vivre sa Vie as companion pieces, both dealing with similar subjects, both dealing with similar tragic protagonists, and both ending in similar ways. In Fellini’s film, Giulietta Messina inhabits the outspoken, down on her luck prostitute Cabiria. She aspires to be something bigger, but men constantly, habitually take advantage of her. In Godard’s film, framed around twelve tableaus, Anna Karina plays Nana, a Parisian girl who aspires to be an actress, but soon is relegated to being a prostitute. Both films take place in beautiful places in the world, and show the decrepit nature beneath the façade. Both films are directed with integrity and mastery of the medium. And both films are heartbreaking and tragic. If you don’t cry, or at least shed a tear, at the end of the films, you are a robot or a sociopath. Containing two of the greatest performances by women in cinematic history, both films, exploring complex characters, are the best the world of cinema has to offer.
There are few things I like less than a gimmick. Hence my vehement (former) hatred of 3D, as it was simply used to rake in cash while it was masked as a more immersive experience. Masquerading as something more than it is may be the worst part, for when you take away the veil, the only thing you have left is a lousy and sloppily written story. That’s what gimmicks do; that’s their purpose. The same goes for the short lived reemergence of scratch and sniff cards at the movies (they gave me one all the way back during Rugrats Go Wild), which obviously did not last long. But what happens when a gimmick disguised as a “loving tribute to a bygone era” sweeps audiences and critics off their feet, gallivants on the red carpet at international awards shows, and takes home the Academy Award for Best Picture? Ladies and gentlemen, you have Michel Hazanavicius’ smug load of fluff The Artist!
I consider myself a mild enthusiast of silent film, especially the comedies. I have certainly explored the romantic dramas, such as G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, the seedy horror of expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the experimental, like Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Comedies, however, are my forte. I was enamored of Chaplin and Keaton when I was young and hold them close to my heart in a nostalgic way. So, you would think I would initially be excited that a silent film would take center stage again in world cinema in such a year of highs (The Tree of Life) and lows (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) as 2011. I was indeed very eager. It was nice that a silent film should garner such attention from such a large audience. Though, it took me forever to find out what they were talking about, and the lauds from everyone’s mouths were words blinded by the whimsy and garish light of the grey scale, clearly bedazzling them from the fraud of a film that it is.
The film begins with the premiere of a film, an element that is to begin the trend of wink wink moments directed at the audience. It’s 1927, and the only thing I could think of was, “Is that right? Are those filming techniques right?” George Valentin (Oscar and Cannes Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin) is the Douglas Fairbanks Jr.-esque character, successful in every action/adventure/romance/thriller he releases. The landscape of film is static at the moment, but there is to be a shift in the wind soon after. He bumps into a nobody extra named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who shortly thereafter rises to stardom. Her rise to stardom, however, is marked by two things: 1) talkies have taken over and silent are quickly becoming a thing of the past and 2) this is all at the expense of Valentin’s stardom. Valentin becomes a forgotten piece of film history, and Peppy enjoys newfound fame, with the hint of obligatory guilt. You see, despite their short meeting, they’re in love. What ensues is a series of faux existential crises that manifest themselves if fairly delirious ways, and other fluffy moments.
Yes, I understand perfectly that this is a loving tribute to the silent film era, something that wants to be so authentic that the aspect ratio (1.33:1) is the same as most films between 1927 and 1931, the period that the film takes place in. The film is mostly silent. There are various allusions to other directors and styles (even the use of some music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo). This may supposed to be cute and clever, but it comes off as smarmy and anachronistic. Stylistically, Hazanavicius likes to jump the gun to show off how much he likes silent film and how much he loves to pay homage to it. This, however, makes it so that these seemingly minute details do not fit within the context of the film, making the seemingly minute into something rather important. If you’re going to make a movie like it’s 1927/1931, don’t fill it with pieces of style and content that came after it. Without that gimmick and anachronistic series of elements, there is honestly little to say about the plot. Too little visual storytelling happens, its reliance on the gimmick and on “talking”. It’s flat and tired, and can barely stand up for itself.
What’s worse is that all of this is seems incredibly smarmy and the self-awareness is overwhelming. Every time Dujardin winks at the camera – not so much breaking the fourth wall, but winking at the audience within the film – it feels like he, as well as the director, is winking at us, muttering amongst themselves, “Aren’t we cool, and cute, and amazing for making a silent film in 2011? Isn’t this the best?” This total self-awareness ruins the experience, making the gimmick seem even more glaringly obvious that it already was. Gimmicks are bad enough, but when the people in the film are in on it and smirking all the time, the audience is jarred beyond belief. I found them to be completely smug. I found the entire film to be smug.
What I found to be mildly ironic is that Peppy Miller, during an interview for an upcoming film, condemns silent actors to just mugging for the camera, essentially. There seems to be more mugging on the camera from Dujardin as Valentin than in any silent films I’ve actually seen. From Modern Times to The General, from The Last Laugh to Sherlock Jr., there may have been overacting to a point and some embarrassingly hammy reaction shots, but Dujardin really milks it for the camera. As to whether or not this is to prove Peppy’s point and satirize the issue itself or if this is really Dujardin paying tribute to the silent era. Whichever it is, it’s done neither convincingly nor enjoyably.
It occurred to me last night, while at the 60th Anniversary screening of the great musical classic Singin’ in the Rain (which was amazing, by the way), that The Artist is essentially a very bad loose remake of that film. It tackles the same ideas, the same issues; it has a very similar meet cute, and a somewhat similar conflict and resolution. Both films explore the transition from the silent era to the sound era and how worried studio execs were at how actors would sound on the screen. Granted, while similar in theme and plot to some extent, both films take on different routes. The Artist is far more overt and self-congratulatory about its tribute, while Singin’ in the Rain remains fairly modest, giving far more insight into the studio system than The Artist ever did. Most importantly, though, Singin’ in the Rain explores these themes and ideas with sincerity and real wonder, without the smirk or self-awareness. The Artist, with all its hammy acting, anachronistic stylizations, and thin plot, smirks through the entirety of the film. It ends up being too self-aware and even “meta” for its own good. If probably would have fared better simply as a period piece instead of a full-fledged silent project. If you’re looking for a film that accurately and sincerely looks at the transition from silent to sound sans gimmick, you’re better off Singin’ in the Rain.