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.
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.)
As much as I watched movies growing up, I spent more time reading in my youth than watching film. As a result, I was very much the typical “Read the book before the movie” kind of person and often staunchly the “book was better than the movie” person as well. This included things from Dracula, the Harry Potter book series, the cases of Sherlock Holmes, the works of Agatha Christie, the James Bond books, and even the somewhat frivolous choice of Jane Austen (I had a thing for English writers, I guess). However, as I grew to be a better writer, as I grew to love film more passionately, and as I grew to be a better film watcher I slowly drifted from that state of mind to one of “treat the two as almost separate entities”. I’ve become the kind of person who will pipe up defending a film’s interpretation of a book, even if drastic changes are made and even if I didn’t like the film. A film should be able to stand on its own and be as broadly accessible as possible, right? That may be so, but I noticed very recently that, despite my mild evolution in thought, I still relapse into the same state of mind when watching certain television adaptations of works. From HBO’s Todd Haynes directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce to the British television series that adapted Poirot and Miss Marple to the incredible I, Claudius, I’ve inadvertently made a strange exception. And I don’t quite understand why, but I will try to discuss it further here.
One of my most vivid memories as a child is one that takes me back to second grade. I was lying on the bed in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother’s house listening to the audio book of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, narrated by the great Jim Dale. (Full disclosure: A lot of my “reading” was actually done by audio book. I have no shame.) Sure, the Harry Potter books make not be the literary masterpieces a lot of people my age would purport them to be, but I really do enjoy them and, at that age, I found them to be quite magical. There was so much depth and detail, the characters seemed so fully realized, and I wanted to be a part of that world. I assumed, as do probably most people at that age when reading a book, that the film adaptation would take me to that world exactly as I had imagined. But it didn’t.
Much to my dismay, I was unable to really make much out of the first three movies, which to me, were a fiasco (they still aren’t great, really). But I was so in tune to my own interpretation of the book that it never occurred to me a) the director has his own ideas b) the author has their own intentions and c) the adaptations should be able to stand on their own, in order to make the world more open. Also, there was an issue with running time, so there was that as well. (I still find it kind of strange that director David Yates decided to make the longest book into the shortest film. Clever, but strange.) My own ego was at work here, and fully manifested itself in a very angry letter written to the film’s producers (this is again, in second grade) begging them to adapt as completely as possible Book Five to the screen. All the tiny, minute details, all of the characters, story arcs, dialogue, etc. I was 9, and I thought I was entitled to a complete version of the film. A transliteration. (The letter remained unsent, for the record.)
I had the same issues with several other films, but I think the majesty of something I saw as so fantastical and enjoyable really struck me. Seeing those changes in the film versions of my favorite books literally offended me. I scoffed at the screen. I probably deemed whatever film it was poor due to the numerous changes. The 1931 Todd Browning version of Dracula always annoyed me because they omitted several characters, “destroying” an intriguing plot. For, at that age, I could not be satiated unless it was as accurate as possible.
However, as I grew older and I began to understood film more and more as medium, as an entertainment device, etc. I realized that these departures should be fine, so long as they cohere with the rest of the film. It’s the reason I had such an issue with the screen version of Les Miserables: you approach a film almost blindly usually, with very little context. That’s supposed to be made up in exposition, extra scenes, etc. Les Miz didn’t have that, but neither did the musical. The reason being is that the approach is different. The point being, with no context, you should be able to go into a film adaptation of a book and get a majority of it. Sure, there will be some nuances missed or not understood, some in jokes to please the readers, etc., but generally speaking, it should be a simple, fun, engaging ride.
Now that I’ve understood that literature and cinema, despite their connections and roots, should be able to operate alone, there are a few exceptions I’ve noticed, in terms of how I treat and come back from a film. One of the first is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I count this as a notable exception because the film was directed by its original author, Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Rarely, as far as I know, does the original author direct and write the screenplay of the film version (the focus being “and”). In that film, you’re supposed to get the full vision, the full realization of the characters that the author created. And, all said and done, it’s pretty good. There are some notable differences in how the subject matter is treated, and with that ambiguity comes a couple problems: Chbosky spent so much time tiptoeing around certain aspects of his original novel that he mentions a couple things and then drops them without resolution. A couple characters jump the gun and don’t make a “complete circle” in terms of evolution. But, all things considered, these are pretty minor issues. The most important stuff is in there. And yet it’s not a transliteration. It still remains a film that can be treated separately from its source material.
I talked about transliterations a while back in my review for Mildred Pierce and I would like to bring it up again. I haven’t read the entirety of the original novel, but, rewatching the series, I’m struck not only how faithful the series is, but how good it is. Part of the issue of transliterations conceptually is that it doesn’t bring much originality to the table. It suffocates the work (see: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen). But even though Mildred Pierce was exhaustively adapted, using a majority of the dialogue and nearly every scene from the book, it still breathes life into the novel. It is not merely because it’s a film of the novel, but because it still remains an interpretation, primarily that of director Todd Haynes. In interviews, Haynes stated that although there book was essentially the text, he wanted to have every screen from Mildred’s perspective, giving the film a slightly subjective lens. That alone frees it from being exhaustingly dull and commonplace. What may be as important as the source material in an adaptation is the passion the maker brings to it, which includes their interpretation.
That said, had this not occurred, had the film not so lovingly been adapted from the book, with the words practically lifted off the page, I don’t think I would have given the film a pass. It’s a curious thing I’ve noticed over the last few days, actually. For some reason, I’m less inclined to give television adaptations any kind of leniency than I am film.
With film, you’re allotted a narrow amount of time, usually, which means that a lot has to be cut out and a lot has to change in order to meet those constraints (though, I still don’t understand why the dialogue can’t be retained). With television, you’re given an incredible amount of freedom, especially in terms of time, if not necessarily with budget. So, I believe the preconception I approach television adatations with (and others do the same, I think) is: “They have all that time, which means they should be able to get in a majority of the details in there.”
I’ve been rewatching some of the more recent ITV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books, particularly those starring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the spinster Miss Marple. I’m a bit rusty on the novels, but I still remember a fairly good deal about them, at least the main arcs and characterizations. But I noticed some rather drastic deviations. The Nicolas Winding Refn directed episode of Marple called “Nemesis” retains one conceit from the novel and throws the rest away, even changing the murder, the victim, the perpetrator, and the motive. SparkNotes, in comparison, would be far more accurate. I resented this change. Why bother changing all of that? Why bother adapting that book in the first place? For the episode “By the Pricking of My Thumbs”, one of the protagonists is characterized as a resentful alcoholic. Um, why? Was it an attempt to add depth to that character? Was it an attempt to fix a plot hole? (The novel was originally intended for Christie’s Nick and Nora-esque detectives, Tommy and Tuppence, who are relegated to supporting roles in the TV adaptation.) 2010 brought a new adaptation of Christie’s most famous novel Murder on the Orient Express, but even then, I found the changes to be extraordinarily inessential. The darker tone, the focus on Poirot being a Catholic, the change of characters, the drop of an important piece of evidence, etc. No, that episode did not “pass my test”. The book had earlier been adapted by Sidney Lumet in 1974 (garnering Ingrid Bergman with her third Academy Award), and that one was rather accurate, but also contained seemingly bizarre, “unnoticeable” changes. Many of the changes in both television series’ earlier incarnations would probably only be noticeable to avid readers, so why bother changing them at all if they’re so minute?
The approach is the same: more time, more reason to add or retain details. I, Claudius (based on the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves) gets it right (including chunks of dialogue too), so why can’t everyone else? It may not have to be a transliteration, but the faithfulness was lacking in the Christie series.
To completely generalize, I believe that we hold film adaptations of books under such scrutiny because it is usually a book that we care deeply about. As much as I adore and love cinema, books are something very special and unique. They can be just as, if not more, transportive than film. But, I believe it’s good to let go, to allow the two to be, for the sake of an analogy, cousins, if not brothers and sisters. And I believe that I hold television accountable, not only because of the spacious room they seem to be given in how they’re able to tell their story, but because I want to be enveloped in what I fell in love with for a longer period of time than a movie adaptation can do. It’s not right, but it’s my flaw.
That said, I love film and books both completely and passionately.
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.
2012 in Film: #37
Drive (2011) | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Thoughts: Drive is a memorable exercise in subtly as well as showmanship. It is at once complex and simple. Its protagonist embodies the existential hero, so well portrayed by Gosling. Paying homage to the great car chase films and even Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “Lonely Man”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a carefully executed thrill, and one of the best films from 2011. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be an exhilarating ride.(See Review)