The Sound of the Devil: Talking with Nicolas Winding Refn
When I called Mr. Refn this morning, he was dropping his kids off at school. It’s hard to imagine the Danish auteur behind hyper-violent operas like Bronson, Drive, and Only God Forgives as Daddy, there’s a certain kind of pleasant meekness about him which is every so often imbued in his films and, even more, his soundtracks. That kind of vulnerability is also present in the documentary his wife, Liv Corfixen, made My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, where we get to see the director at a point of vulnerability that is, as the title suggested, only a window that Ms. Corfixen really gets to observe.
Can the Bad Fight Well?: Only God Forgives
If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the slow burning thriller that essentially made its director a household name in the United States and launched a plethora of cutesy memes of its leading man, is the “accessible art house appetizer”, then I think it would be appropriate to call Refn’s most recent project, and second collaboration with star Ryan Gosling the full buffet. Well, at least it looks like it. The problem is, however nice it the meal may look, you could not find a more impenetrable film that was more stuck in its own concept.
Julian’s brother is killed after raping and murdering another man’s daughter in Thailand. Julian’s mother comes to Bangkok to see the corpse of her son. Her sons were drug dealers, and, meanwhile, both harbored a unique relationship with their mother, both equally incestuous, though Julian’s from more of a distance. The chief of police and Julian’s mother are at war, though it’s never explained explicitly why that is.
Only God Forgives indulges in its slow, neon drenched cinematography, and the camera moves, much like its narrative pace, as If it is walking and meandering around the city of Bangkok. Everything is red and blue, presumably representing the clashing ideals of passion and repression, heat and cold, and life and death. Although Refn could be, to some extent, labeled a little bit of a visualist, particularly with a film like his experimental Valhalla Rising or even his earlier Pusher Trilogy and Fear X, the cinematography is both overt and opaque here, servicing no one but Refn himself. All the meaning in the world that Refn could elaborate on does not make up for the fact that the inherent coldness of the film and its cinematography very often undermines its beauty. The cinematography, however, is not without its charms. It is often haunting and hypnotic, putting the viewer under a trance, regardless of whether that trance or whether those shots mean anything other than a visual manifestation or representation of machismo.
Which might be part of the problem. A few days later and I am still not entirely sure what the film was trying to do, but I do know that masculinity was an important part nonetheless. What I do not know is whether the film is the mouth of Refn, flashing the audience his fascination with masculinity in any culture, or whether it is a commentary therein of masculinity. Almost like Tarantino’s own foot fetish, Refn admits to having a fascination, even a fetish for fists. So many of his films about masculinity and how it functions in society, and more often than not, there is a close up shot of someone clenching, or unclenching, their fists. Only God Forgives is not exception, but that fist clenching, and Goslings singular delivery of “Wanna fight?” do nothing to actually clear the waters as to what the film is attempting to do. Commentary or not, no one is nice or good or even pleasant in this film. They are all deeply masculine characters, inhabiting deeply masculine prejudices, overreactions, and desires for sex and violence. There is no hero.
Heroes and protagonists are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but one wonders who the protagonist is and what exactly they are trying to overcome. Yes, Ryan Gosling is the lead actor, but what exactly is he trying to do? He’s given orders from his overbearing and manipulative mother, and the two clearly have a very Oedipal tension between them, but what Gosling’s character actually does is very little, except for stare blankly from scene to scene, either at another character or into the lens of the camera. One could argue that the protagonist is the Thai cop, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), but even his motives are fairly murky. Murky, but not ambiguous. The primary issue then is that the film is so bent on making all these characters (perhaps inadvertently) loathsome that there seems to be no depth to them at all. Where Drive’s main man at least had baggage and was not a good man through and through, Gosling’s Julian is nothing but a caricature or a badly drawn representation of male blood lust and misogyny.
As far as I can recall of Refn’s career, Refn has not worked in the area of provocation very much, at least not intentionally and not in the way his fellow Dane Lars von Trier has. Yes, Bronson got some criticism for Tom Hardy’s bizarre (and perfect) performance as a hyper violent, incredibly theatrical villain, but it fit and it made sense. But it was Drive’s head smashing scene that raised a few eyebrows, but even then, it wasn’t as if he was subjecting his characters to, say, the smashing of their “manhood” (which, to be honest, is kind of surprising what with the subject he often explores). But while I didn’t ostensibly have any issue with the violence in Only God Forgives, it is undeniable that it was over the top and provocative. Worse than that, it became redundant. Certainly, there were scenes where it felt necessary, such as a very On the Waterfront-esque fight scene, but like the Korean film I Saw the Devil, it simply became tiring and it reached a point where one would cross their legs, quickly roll their eyes, and say, “Okay, I get it, can we move on now?” In terms of a von Triersian brand of provocation, it’s not inherently successful. Extensive use of music is used in certain violent scenes, arguably to juxtapose the beauty and splendor of both/neither, but, at this point in the game, it feels too late and it feels desperate.
Gosling’s role is little more than a staring contest, which was charming and meaningful the first time (because there was a reason), but obnoxious and cold the second time around. Gosling is beautiful to look at, even to stare at, but if his character does almost nothing else, there’s little reason to care. Yes, I know, Driver did very little else, but his stares, while certainly more soulful, were often motivated by that of Irene. Here, he just looks like a loner, someone who you would be torn between avoiding on the subway and asking if he has Resting Asshole Face. You have to hand it to Gosling, though, for doing all that he can with what little he was given. Refn says it’s about the character channeling his impotence through violence, and while it is indeed conveyed by some sublime camerawork, it is little to actually sustain the character or the story of the film.
Kristen Scott Thomas is an interesting trifle in the film. She’s seductive, but repulsive; sexy, yet terrifying. Despite these attempts at dualities, her character remains one of the shallowest. Many of compared her to Lady Macbeth, but that technically doesn’t make sense. Although both she and Lady Macbeth are ruefully manipulative, Lady Macbeth actually felt remorse and guilt (“Out damn spot!”). Maybe it was incredibly selfish, but Lady Macbeth felt these emotions nonetheless. It’s certainly intriguing to watch Gosling do her bidding, but the Oedipal tension between the two actually goes almost nowhere. It seems to be more of a play on Oedipal tension than an actually well sketched out, primal, dangerous, even taboo relationship. Instead, Refn just sort of spells the whole thing out, especially over a dinner sequence. The masculine power that Thomas has, though, is interestingly offensive. Again, I refer back to the other Danish auteur Lars von Trier: he has, throughout his career, from the Golden Heart Trilogy to Antichrist, been accused of misogyny. Regardless of whether these allegations are true, his female character are, at least, noble in their own way. Perhaps condescendingly so, but noble nonetheless. They’re not one dimensional or even two dimensional. They may not inhabit dualities or paradoxes like Julian’s mother, but they are consistent and admirable. Thomas is the Dragon Lady, someone who is out only for herself, obsessed with power in a way that isn’t shown through exposition but through body language and action. She drapes her arms around a couch “like a man”, owning everyone and everything in the room she’s in. She approaches everyone with aggression, not like a lioness, but like a lion. She could easily be the Devil or the God of Carnage. She looks like Donatella Versace, but she hones the masculinity to a point where her character, so shallow and evil, becomes inherently misogynistic. I’m not saying female characters must be admirable, I’m saying that they should be able to oscillate between different dimensions, feelings, and be written with depth. Thomas is flat, but intriguing nonetheless. She’s one of the most fascinating, most repulsive characters that Refn has ever produced.
But there’s a running problem throughout the film and it’s never fully resolved as to whether the misogyny depicted is simply there, something a part of the film, or a criticism of machismo’s penchant for misogyny in general. The violence towards women, the demeaning language towards Julian’s hook-cum-faux-lover Mai, etc. Generally, an ambiguity of this sort would intrigue, much like the ambiguity of whether Harmony Korine was treating his subjects in Gummo as sideshow freaks or merely observing them. But here, it feels gross and wrong.
What did appeal to me, however, was the obvious Lynchian influence (as well as the influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, to whom the film is dedicated) on the film. The soundscapes in this film were as refined, if not more so, than in Drive, not merely because the sound was filled with the ambiance of the city. ON the contrary, it was selectively beautiful, channeling in on the perceived silence and light fuzz and atmosphere of rooms and emotions. The sound could manifest itself as a series of louder noises, clangs that, with composer Cliff Martinez’s music, make your blood run cold, or scenes that could stop your heart altogether from the tension of “nothingness”. If there’s one thing that Refn can kind of do well, it’s the ability to hold tension via music and/or sound, which, as aforementioned, is something he definitely learned from Lynch.
Refn doesn’t just take from Lynch in the sound department: He also includes some Lynchian influences in the editing. The most interesting aspect of the film, besides the look I suppose, is the editing. Not “tight” per se, nor outwardly “non-linear”, but the narrative structure (for what little narrative there is, oops around sometimes and flashes back to different scenes fluidly and without being intrusive. The editing and the sound elevate this film from disaster in some ways. It is an attempt, if not a successful one, to be engaging and to keep the audience on its toes. Nothing else in the film seems to really do that.
What does the title mean? I’m still not sure. I suppose, on the plus side for Refn, I’m still thinking about the film, but the more I think about it, the less I like it and the more I think of its flaws and how they negate any of the film’s positive qualities (of which there are very few). Who exactly is God? Is it the cop? Would he be the representation of God’s carnage, as seen in the Old Testament, since he seems to have vendettas of his own? Is it Julian’s mother, for she gave birth to a killer of man (one who is also impotent) and she herself is blood thirsty? Kind of like Mother of the Earth but, you know, vindictive. Is it Gosling’s Julian, a man who lacks control of a set of events he did not create or put into motion? And if the tagline is “It’s Time to Meet the Devil”, who is the Devil? I won’t go into that, as it would basically be a reiteration of the whole paragraph, which is in itself a problem. I do not have an issue with films being opaque in order to convey certain ideas, but when those ideas don’t go anywhere or even clearly understand what they are, then I have a problem.
While I don’t think it’s nearly as awful as the boos as the Cannes Film Festival suggested, I definitely understand why one would be prone to do that. Whether it’s a commentary of modern masculinity in society or merely a projection of it, Refn’s film gets stuck in redundancy and fails to move anywhere totally interesting. There are moments where the sublime photography, where the combination of image and music are totally haunting and hypnotic, but not enough to forgive the errors and flaws of the rest of the film. It’s a shame, though, because there are some genuinely interesting ideas here but a majority of them are sort of left hanging in the air for the audience to try to reach and explore, but are left dangling. Refn responded to critics by saying that “Silence is cinema!” Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently good cinema.
(Note: For an intriguing alternate take on the film, check out Simon Abrams’s essay here.)
Listen to All My Sh*t: The Music of Spring Breakers
For all of its universality in portraying seemingly good people revealing their true nihilistic selves and behaving badly, Harmony Korine purposely focuses his debauchery filled new film Spring Breakers at contemporary youth, or what some people have labeled as “Millennials”. But he does this neither in the choice of Spring Break in general nor even choosing the nubile actresses themselves, but, most notably, in the choice of music. Korine is, like Tarantino (but perhaps less well known), good at choosing music, often to ironically tonally subvert a scene, or, in this case, an entire film. Korine’s choice to hire Cliff Martinez and Skrillex is telling, as well as their decision to include certain tracks and music in the film. All of these points to a focus on a particular group of people and how nasty they really are. Three tracks in particular perfectly illustrate the themes of the film and the personalities of the characters: Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, and Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”. The three tracks work not only as a representation and epitome of the generation that this film is directed at, but also as a distillation of the film itself.
The “Monsters” Within
It may be one thing to choose Cliff Martinez to score your film, whose nostalgia drenched Drive is one of the best soundtracks in recent memory, but it is entirely something else to also have Lord of the Bass Drop, dubstep mastermind Skrillex, to also be on board. So, while the film’s score oscillates between various transmutations of dubstep, electro-hip hop, and something a little ‘80s driven as well, it might be a little surprising at first to hear Skrillex’s most famous track begin the film. “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” is originally off of the DJ’s second EP of the same name, and its title alone suggests the characters. When you listen to the track however, the thematic elements of the title play in reverse, almost as they do in the film. Something sweeter and nice starts playing, sort of like an electronically produced candy land, with something sinister underneath. This is, of course, juxtaposed against images of teenagers “celebrating” in Florida. But that sense of unbelievable, too good t be true pureness in electronic sound suits the film’s four characters, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine.
When you just look at these four attractive actresses, you wrongly have the sense that they’re nice and sort of angelic. Their neon bathing suits, streaked hair, and distinctively feminine qualities are exemplified in the beginning notes of the track. Once you get deeper into the film and get to know the characters, the monsters are let loose. For, what is scarier to the general male that the concept of a woman being in control of her own agency, her own sexuality, and using that as a form of power? These “scary monsters” are scary from a popular cultural perspective, a society which undermines young women’s intelligence, their abilities to decide for themselves, and the fact that they can give any man a run for his money when it comes to toting a gun. The femininity of their “sprite-like” façade is subverted by Skrillex’s trademark “bass drop”, where you hear the screams of a young girl saying, “Yes, oh my gosh!” This is a shout of triumph, the girls perhaps being stunned by their own power and subsequent prowess. The progressive house tone that the song transitions to is intentionally cacophonous, thereby showing that the girls can be mean, but drawing the line at evil. Who are we really to classify these girls as monsters? Or are these the monsters we made ourselves by our reflexive oppression and objectifying? However, the song is able to transition back and forth between these two qualities: the sound of the Nice Sprites and the sound of the Scary Monsters. The girls themselves oscillate between being those sprites and monsters; between the immaturity of young girls and the maturity of grown women. These women are in control, in such a way that we, as an audience, cannot even fathom it.
Hit Me Baby “Everytime”
The centerpiece of the film and what is, by consensus, said to be the very best part, is the use of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”. I made a point in my review to make some comparisons to Britney Spears as a person and as a songstress, but “Everytime” is the kind of majestic scene that only one could ever hope to conceive, never mind execute flawlessly. Calum Marsh wrote a very good, very interesting article about how the song and the scene essentially prove that Spring Breakers isn’t a satire. I would go a step further and assert that, not only is the song not used ironically, but that it fits the relationship between the girls and James Franco’s Alien. The song originally appeared as a single off of the Princess of Pop’s fourth album In the Zone, and was allegedly written in response to ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake’s hit single “Cry Me a River”. The song plaintively apologizes for all the harm and wrong that occurred in a relationship, where Spears’ persona basically “owns up” to most of those faults. Why is the song played at all? The remaining three girls, Hudgens, Benson, and Korine, ask Alien to play something inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps a little odd considering that the song is basically a breakup… but is it?
This is well into the film, and after the young women have asserted their power over Franco himself. So, now that the girls essentially have shifted the power hierarchy in their bizarre relationship, why not sing a breakup song? Or, rather, a “post-Breakup song”. The girls are saying goodbye to Franco, for they know, for all of their feminine power, they can supersede him in Florida and then return home as if nothing ever happened. That is what college spring break is all about: creating momentary relationships with people you don’t really know, creating a dynamic that doesn’t last, and then leaving it all behind. Not only that, but the song opens with the words “notice me”; by exerting this power, the girls are able to get people to notice them. Even Gucci Mane. It feels a little ironic and a little satirical, though, because of where the song is used and over what. In beautiful slow motion, “Everytime” is played over scenes of Franco’s gang assaulting people, pistol whipping them, while the girls are just as much a part of the action. Who the leader of this gang is becomes incredibly blurred. Even from an aesthetic point, the use of the song is transcendent and one of the film’s most dizzyingly beautiful moments. Like Korine said, it’s all about that haunting piano. It’s sinister yet innocent, and completely beautiful.
Turn On the “Lights”
The song that plays over the final the neon end credits is fitting to the film: Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”. Off of her album of the same name, Goulding’s ethereal vocals and equally bedazzling song production become sonic manifestations of the glowing and neon soaked cinematography. Deep in the rain and under the water, on the streets and as they drive, the lights shine representing the danger that so entices the girls. But, that danger is what they find alluring and safe. As Ellie Goulding said, she feels safe sleeping with the lights on. By that, the lights reveal things about the characters that they seem to come to understand towards the end of the film. Their Malickian voice over messages colliding with their Godardian rhetoric and a little bit of a sneer of insincerity are the result of this change.
From the 120 beat per second drum/bass line to the star studded eletronica (reminiscent of bounding lights and bouncing piano keys), “Lights” assaults the listener with dark thoughts and a boom that seems like a blast of darkness and then of light. The lights flicker, as they sometimes do in the film. However, here the lights don’t obfuscate. They may be blinding, they may be alluring, but they reveal desire, lust, and dreams. They offer safety and clarity. The importance of light is evident in the film, as lens flare, bright colors, and the lettering of the title are used to intoxicate the viewer and the characters. There is a small bit of irony here, though. Since the song is about feeling safety when the lights are on, this reveals the childish aspect of the four girls’. They may be fascinated by the lights, but they don’t want the dark. Again, as I mentioned earlier, the girls, and the songs, oscillate between the immaturity of young girls and grown women.
Generationally, it makes sense for these tracks to be used. Dubstep is popular amongst the party scene, so Skrillex is an obvious choice. The girls, and the audience, grew up with Britney Spears, watching her rise to fame to her fall from grace and then resurgence years later. And Ellie Goulding is one of the hottest new artists on the scene. It was therefore a wise choice for Korine to use these tracks, appealing to his main demographic and yet fitting them to the characters specifically enough that the film’s commentary on youth culture was that much more on the nose.
If you couldn’t tell by the fact that this is my third post in a row about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, I’m totally enamored of this film, from every aspect. Every element, thrown against the wall or not, seems to fit. But the key tracks of the film shed light on the characters, the environment, and the commentary. Thus, Skrillex, Britney Spears, and Ellie Goulding all accentuate the atmosphere of the film. Spring Breakers is film fueled by its ability to stagger and stun every sense, and sonically, the film couldn’t do better.
“Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” – Skrillex
“Everytime” – Britney Spears
“Lights” – Ellie Goulding
Watch and See – My Top 101 Films: Part 2
My list of the favorite 101 films of all time continues! See Part 1 here!
21. Casino Royale* (2006) | Directed by Martin Campbell
Bond’s gritty return to the screen is a reboot in the same way that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a reboot: a character reinvention where we get to see his naked psyche taking place in a real world where, in the end, he doesn’t win. The back to basics approach strips Bond of the cartoonish gadgetry of the last forty years in favor for the gritty realism that didn’t make the character popular beforehand. Prior to the readaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel, Bond was an escape, a super hero for the Cold War. In a post-9/11 world, though, and in an age where formulas have to be reinvented, that James Bond with a jetpack just wouldn’t cut it. So, we trade in the special attaché case in favor of a case study, of Bond, his villain, and his Bond girl. This is all subtle enough so that most viewers probably wouldn’t take as much note of it, but it’s still there. The cold metal armor that covers his heart is melted by Vesper Lynd (the elegant Eva Green), and Bond faces ethical decisions and must reign in his ego against the Number, in league with a certain terrorist organization. It’s Craig’s honest portrayal of a cold killer who finally comes to terms with what he does for a living that makes the film so spectacular. Oh, not to mention the superb direction (from Martin Campbell, GoldenEye helmer), the great action sequences (oh, bye Venice; oh hey free running!), and the intense card playing. I know that those sequences are often complained about it, but, when has poker playing been so intense? Bond is reinvented with a new origin story, and yet, without a doubt, we know his name and we know his number.
22. Cast Away (2000) | Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Zemeckis made most of his career for action, sci-fi comedies like Back to the Future (which I hate, by the way) or sappy walks through history like Forrest Gump. But Cast Away may be the best example of his direction, his ability to set up a scene, and his chops as a visual storyteller. For the most part, it’s Tom Hanks stranded on an island. Simple though it may sound, the mostly wordless film concentrates on how isolation affects us, our need for companionship (as evidenced by Wilson), and our struggle to survive as human beings. Tom Hanks’ performance in this is one of the best performances from Nicest Guy in Hollywood to date, at once embodying Robinson Crusoe and Charlie Chaplin. His friendship with a beach volleyball, Wilson, contains some of the most tender and memorable moments in cinema.
23. Charade (1963) | Directed by Stanley Donen
With the colors of Singin’ in the Rain and the macabre wit of Alfred Hitchcock (perhaps The Lady Vanishes), Charade is a jovial and jaunty thriller with exceptional humor and thrills. There are some obvious brushstrokes taken from the Bond films, with the storyline strumming with spies and duplicity, which is a little ironic, since Cary Grant had been offered the role of Bond for Dr. No. It’s the lighthearted wit that makes the film, the connection and chemistry between Grant and Audrey Hepburn superb. And, don’t worry, I have no idea who Cary Grant’s character is either, and I’ve watched it at least 50 times.
24. Chungking Express (1994) | Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Wong Kar-Wai’s glorious Chungking Express is pop art in the best way possible. Taking its cues from popular romances, nostalgic music, and color drenched, kinetic camera work, the film, despite being an artistic masterwork, actually was made more as a commercial film. It just goes to show that when you have an artist behind the camera, anything is possible. The film is comprised of two stories, both following rather lonely people, who obsess either over the past or what has yet to even happen. Regardless of how superb and beautiful this film is, I kept thinking of one thing throughout viewing this film: “Wow, we Asians are awesome at wallowing in self-pity.”
25. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) | Directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s film is all sorts of lovely. A story of faith and serendipity, it brings together people who continue to see things that really could not be possible, or even plausible. But they are. Through tremendous special effects, moving performances, a stellar score from John Williams, and, of course, a wonderful role from French New Wave auteur François Truffaut, the film transcends the science fiction genre and makes a film full of emotion. The subject matter initially sounds kind of frivolous and silly, but with its character driven story, it’s anything but that. There’s a surprising amount of faith embedded in the film. Dreyfuss, against the odds, maintains that what he’s seeing must be real, and seeks to find it. The finale of the film is spectacular. The film stands out as one of the best Spielberg has ever made.
26. Clue (1985) | Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Jonathan Lynn’s comedic gem Clue was made before making movies out of board games was cool. Similar to (what I consider) the lesser comedy mystery parody Murder by Death, Clue takes your favorite characters from the Parker Brothers board game, brings them to life, and makes them do outlandish, hysterical things. It’s probably not as self-aware or as deliberate a parody of mysteries as Murder by Death, but what it lacks in that meta-humor is a terrific script and a spectacular ensemble. Madeline Khan’s deadpan deliveries as Mrs. White, Martin Mull’s indignant Colonel Mustard, Lesley Ann Warren’s slinky and sardonic Miss Scarlett, and Tim Curry’s brilliant/bumbling butler are absolutely superb. With Clue, it’s not just a game anymore.
27. Dancer in the Dark (2000) | Directed by Lars von Trier
Provocateur Lars von Trier makes a musical! Yes, my friends, the man behind the devious allegory of Dogville, the satanic glory of Antichrist, and the End of the World character study Melancholia made a musical. With Icelandic singer Bjork. Taking advantage of Bjork’s child-like persona, von Trier employs her to play a slightly naïve Czech immigrant living in Washington in 1964, slowly going blind. Saving money little by little for her son’s operation as she works in a factory, she takes solace in imagining her world as a musical. In that way, it’s a little like Chicago. But what von Trier does with a musical is subvert a musical’s typical job to manipulate the audience emotionally. An unsaid rule of thumb for a musical is that it must be sentimental and happy and sad, etc., the music often working as emotional cues for what the audience is supposed to feel. Lars von Trier turns that on its head and subverts that sentimentality, making Dancer in the Dark one of the most emotionally manipulative films ever made. I say that as a good thing. The moment that Bjork’s childlike Selma and her life start going downhill, there’s no stopping. It’s relentless. It gets to a point where you don’t know how much more depressing, sad, and, yes, melancholy the film could possibly get, and then jumps past those expectations. But it is nonetheless a triumph of feeling, rather than acting for Bjork, and directing for Lars von Trier. With very Bjork-ish music (she wrote the songs), and interesting Dogme95-esque camera work, Dancer in the Dark is the best slap in the face that musicals, and the people who love them, could ever get.
28. Death Proof (2007) | Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino’s loving ode to car chase films like Vanishing Point and Gone in 60 Seconds (the original one) gets the flack of being “lesser Tarantino”. It’s not as narratively flashy or as experimental, it’s not as visually compelling (so they say), the character’s aren’t as interesting, the dialogue isn’t as good, it’s like an episode of Friends directed by Tarantino, and the complaints go on. On the contrary, the fact that Tarantino reigns himself in, making a rather understated film in comparison to his other works, is refreshing. And what the film does have is an intense car chase on par with Bullitt and The French Connection. This is Tarantino’s girl power film, the closest he’s ever come to making a “women in prison” movie. It’s fun, and the characters are as articulate as ever. My favorite part of the film is the second half, in which Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Zoe Bell kick ass. Tarantino provides a wonderful soundtrack along with a great car chase sequence.
29. The Devil Wears Prada (2006) | Directed by David Frankel
It isn’t exactly the typical chick flick you would come to expect from the dozens or even hundreds that have been made, and it’s different in the way that it a) treats its “villain” and b) treats the fashion industry. Meryl Streep’s peerless portrayal of the Devil as Editor in Chief is far from just Streep being bitchy and demanding. There’s that, which is undoubtedly fun to watch, but Streep, in all her glory, is able to provide a duality and vulnerability to the character. Miranda Priestly is still a villain, and she rarely remains sympathetic, but she is at least multidimensional. Secondly, it treats the fashion industry with respect. Going in, we’re given the same perspective that most people in the audience would assume: fashion is stupid and overly expensive. “And they all act like they’re curing cancer or something. The amount of time and energy¡¬ that these people spend on these insignificant, minute details, and for what? So that tomorrow they can spend another $300,000 reshooting something¡¬ that was probably fine to begin with¡¬ to sell people things they don’t need!” However, we, the audience, are enlightened as to what it is: a theoretical, conceptual business of artistry. While Runway, the Vogue like magazine Anne Hathaway’s Andy works at, may focus on the marketing, we are given insights into the artistic side of working in fashion. Also, Emily Blunt is perfect as Miranda’s first assistant, Emily, whose bitchery rivals even that of her boss.
30. Diabolique (1955) | Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Clouzot’s masterful piece of suspense, mystery and horror would eventually give inspiration to numerous directors, including Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho. Clouzot perfected the art of creating tension with The Wages of Fear, and it looks and feels even better in Diabolique. In this rather Gothic horror, camera positioning is everything. Mise-en-scene is of the utmost importance. The planned murder of the bastard of a headmaster as a private school by his wife and mistress, the entire film is built around tremendous suspense. But it’s the ending that will give you a heart attack.
31. District 9 (2009) | Directed by Neill Blomkamp
I was surprised at how quickly District 9, which might be at first glance just be an action sci-fi flick but is far from it, jumps into “political allegory” mode. Less than four minutes into it, the audience is given a look at the societal discrepancies between aliens, or prawns, and humans and their subsequent segregation and ostracism from society. With a wallop of an introduction, the film focuses on one man, originally hired to send eviction notices to the prawns living in District 9, and his transformation into a prawn, his desperate attempts to fix this, and the help he gets from a prawn who can fix the mother ship that can bring them back home. The documentary style filmmaking is an intriguing narrative addition, but it’s Sharlto Copley’s sporadic, improvisational style that brings an incredible amount of realism to the film. This isn’t just a sci-fi film, or even something loosely disguised as an allegory, it’s a sad story of self-actualization and acceptance. This film moved me like almost no other film has ever done.
32. Dogville (2005) | Directed by Lars von Trier
I believe the original intentions of von Trier’s Our Town from Hell were to make a film just to piss off the United States. Von Trier, through all of his diabolical genius, accomplished far more than simply angering Americans; von Trier paints a nasty, but important, portrait of America’s hypocrisies and shortcomings. Utilizing minimalist set design, the little town of Dogville is the nice heart of America. Nicole Kidman, whose performance is superlative, plays Grace, who is America’s gung ho idealism. Almost an ironic exploration of self, through Grace’s “arrogance”, she reveals Dogville’s teeth and dark soul. It’s infuriating, long, and exhausting to watch, but it’s an unrivaled experience, and an honest look at America’s tendency to sweep things under the rug.
33. Down with Love (2003) | Directed by Peyton Reed
Reed’s colorful romantic comedy is a treat, but Down with Love serves up something more than just nostalgia. A critique of the contemporary romantic comedy via the use of techniques reminiscent of the sex comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, every line of dialogue is about the Battle of the Sexes, drenched in sexual innuendo. Ewan McGregor is great as the handsome philanderer and Renée Zelwegger is fabulous as proto-feminist type trying to establish herself as a bestselling author. Even better than the leads are supporting Sarah Paulson as a go-getter editor and David Hyde Pierce as the editor in chief for the magazine McGregor works for. The Battles of the Sexes is hardly over, so let’s get ready to rumble.
34. Dr. No (1962) | Directed by Terrence Young
When the James Bond franchise began, it didn’t lapse into the boring and trying formula that’s become associated with the series. Instead, it was a stricter form of escapism, as similar to any spy movie about the Cold War as anything. Dr. No is one of the best action spy movies to come out of the ‘60s. Of course, it wouldn’t be anything were it not for the charisma of Sean Connery. He’s charming without being annoying, sexy without effort, and cheeky without being silly. Dr. No ends up being a fascinating, action packed adventure.
35. Drive (2011) | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn’s pop culture infused, postmodern existential character study is a captivating film. It looks great, and Ryan Gosling portrays the Driver with expressions that are at once discernible and unreadable. We feel like we know him. With the neon drenched cinematography, every frame is a work of art. It’s a flashy, pop work of contempo art. With its ‘80s-esque pumped soundtrack, the turbulent and shocking bursts of violence, the neon drenched cinematography, and the love story at the center of everything, the film shifts between being completely original and out of left field and being “Camus Behind the Wheel”.
36. Eat Drink, Man Woman (1994) | Directed by Ang Lee
Ang Lee presents Food Porn and Families. I might be exaggerating a little, but Eat Drink Man Woman, a film about relationships, family, love, and maturing, is gorgeous to look at and to watch. Especially the food scenes. As much as that opening scene is mouthwatering to look at, Lee offers a careful examination of a group of women who are growing up and finally becoming independent from their widowed father. Very humorous and insightful, Lee continues to prove himself an expert at looking at familial subjects. It’s delicious.
37. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) | Directed by Michel Gondry
Kaufman once again explores the complexity of the mind, going through the memories of one Joel Barrish, as he attempts to erase his ex-girlfriend completely. The exploration of pain, love, and how memories affect who we are as people is stunning, genius, and heartbreaking. Both Jim Carry and Kate Winslet play against type, Carry taking on a more serious, somewhat anal and insecure role, while Winslet is goofier, epitomizing the annoying pixie quirky girl. Discovering the people who’ve affected us the most is a journey of self-discovery and it has never been more potent than in Gondry’s visually beautiful film.
38. The Exorcist (1973) | Directed by William Friedkin
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has been championed as one of the scariest films of all time, and rightfully so. From Linda Blair’s head turning role as a young girl possessed by an evil demon to the even more horrifying subtext regarding religious control, ideology, and homophobia, … did I lose you? Okay, sticking to the most obvious things, philosophically focusing on faith and viscerally focusing on… pea soup, the film gives a sucker punch with every viewing. Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller also give terrific performances. It’s a film that sounds just as scary as it looks as well, having won an Academy Award for Best Sound. Based on William Peter Blattey’s novel, any day is an excellent day for an exorcism.
39. Fanny and Alexander* (1982) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Once stating, “The Stage is my wife and the cinema is my mistress”, Bergman’s tribute to the stage and to imagination is one of the greatest films ever made. Fanny and Alexander is gorgeously photographed, textured, and visualized. Though the theatrical cut of three hours is more than graceful, the work of true perfection is Bergman’s original five hour cut for TV. As joyful and eloquent as Bergman has ever been, the semi-autobiographical film about the beauty of youth and imagination transcends cinema altogether. I’ve made it a new tradition to watch the first episode of the TV cut of Fanny and Alexander every holiday season, as the 90 minute episode contains the best Christmas scene ever. Oh, yeah, that Christmas scene is the entire episode.
40. Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 (1940/2000) | Directed by Walt Disney/Roy E. Disney
Gorgeously experimental and beautifully realized, music and animation come together harmoniously in Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. The films use two artistic mediums of expression in segments to embrace emotion, story, and the artistry of creating animation and creating music. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a standby, of course, but “Rhapsody in Blue”, featured in Fantasia 2000 clocks in at my favorite segment from the two films. Using Gershwin’s gorgeous music to paint a picture, literally, of New York as expertly as Gordon Willis and Woody Allen did in the opening of Manhattan. Combining the two mediums and having them worked together, complementing one another at every beat, comes together beautifully, making for a memorable experience on the screen. Fantasia is a treat for both the eyes and the ears.
A Woman is a Woman: Lars and the Real Girl
While it is more than fair to say that Ryan Gosling is a versatile actor, it would be hard to believe that Gosling could portray awkward so well. This is not to disregard his ability, but most people have ever seen him as a leading man, suave, sophisticated, and undoubtedly sexy. While The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love gave him the romantic lead, The Ides of March gave him the suave-Cary Grant-esque quality, and Drive made him an existential fighter, these roles allowed him to be the object of much swooning from the female sex (and some males, one In particular whom I know personally, ahem). Lars and the Real Girl is, in many ways, a revelation, both in terms of how people will see Gosling as an actor and in terms of its subject matter within filmmaking. Gosling plays awkward, socially inept, and he does so with pathos. Gosling brings Lars, and Bianca, to real life.
When Lars is fatigued of his social ineptitude and his insecurities stunting his ability to interact with nearly anyone, he tries to solve his predicament by deciding that it may be time for him to finally find a partner, someone with whom he can relate and be emotionally intimate with. Along comes Bianca, who, while personable, kind, and pleasant, just so happens to be a sex doll. She even comes with her own back story! While his brother and sister-in-law are initially wary of Lars’ delusion, his kind sister-in-law decides that, if this is one way that Lars will finally branch out to people, it may not be a problem. And surprisingly, the rest of the small town community is quick to follow.
Lars and the Real Girl, probably unintentionally, is the best argument for tolerance and acceptance. Slowly but surely, Bianca finds her place in the community and begins to help everyone out. It starts out as a subtle gesture of acceptance, but essentially becomes more than that, and meaning more to themselves than they could imagine. Without overstepping its boundaries and jarring the audience with some oft trodden message about acceptance (something that has been advertised ad museum these days), the film makes all of its characters likable and sympathetic, easer to root for, easier to love, and then easier to buy in to what it may be saying. This is greatly aided by the tremendous acting from the cast, the small characters bringing the small town to life. But the film would be nothing without the man who brings Bianca herself to life, making Bianca just as real of a character as everyone else. What is also a relief is that it, again, is not a PSA for anti-bullying. Thus, there is no obligatory “Lars gets bullied by town hoodlums”, something I worried about constantly as I watched the film. To my relief, there was no such scene. The town loves Lars so much, they were willing to buy into it without that usual tension.
Though it may be strange at first seeing Ryan Gosling, who is so devilish in Drive, romantic in The Notebook (which I actually abhor), and quick witted in Crazy, Stupid Love, lean over and emulate real emotional intimacy with a life sized doll, this subtle, controlled performance becomes so real that it brings one to tears by the end. When Bianca comes into Lars’ life, there is new life and confidence to Lars. It is an exceptional performance, almost electric in its emotionality. With all the confident awkwardness that Gosling is able to portray when he is with Bianca, there are beautiful and subtle moments of ambiguity. These fleeting moments of ambiguity, often when Lars looks down at the ground, often seem as Lars is trying to make himself believe that Bianca is real. He knows he wants her to be real wants to be able to channel his emotions like a “normal” person, but it seems that he sometimes struggles. He needs so much to manifest these feelings with a “person” he is comfortable with, and Bianca seems to be the person he wants focus on. His performance is so nuanced and moving, his interactions with Bianca so real, that he brings Bianca to life for the audience. We care so much about Lars that there are moments when we want to fight for him, hope for him.
Emily Mortimer plays Lars’ sister-in-law with just as much realness. Karen is the sympathetic communal catalyst in terms of getting people to play along with Lars’ delusions. Her honesty, though, is refreshing and sweet. She never seems like she is being demeaning or condescending to Lars, but honestly looking out for him, which is more than Lars’ own brother seems to be doing. Paul Schneider’s Gus, the older brother, reveals certain details about their past which may or may not be a factor into Lars’ insecurities and delusions. Patricia Clarkson is elegant as the local doctor who, little by little, tries to weasel out details from Lars. But Lars knows better than to immediately trust her.
The film is startlingly honest about relationships and the effect they have on other people and the acceptance that it takes to welcome someone into your life. While it may not be the mouthpiece to any political commentary, the film is so subtle and gentle, that it could be just that and no one would notice consciously. There is humor in its pathos as well, making the film both a tender and funny experience. There are few films that can have such power over the viewer where it allows them to buy completely into an unrealistic situation and see it as ordinary and nothing less than real. By the end of the film, I may or may not have been in tears. Though, the film gives both Lars and the viewer a sense of closure that, again, seems logical and warranted. Gosling’s portrayal is brilliantly realistic and nuanced and he, along with director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver, bring Lars and Bianca to life. Because, at the heart of the film, it manages to say that a person is a person, no matter how much plastic is in their skin or how they manifest their feelings and quirks. And, in the case of Bianca, a woman is a woman.