Stranger Than Fiction
It’s not exactly a mystery that I’m a huge fan (dare I say “fanboy”?) of the Criterion Collection, that distribution company which releases some of the greatest, strangest, and most important films on DVD and Blu-ray. Someone recently asked me what my wish list of Criterion releases would be, and I thought to myself, “Oh gosh, how can I even think?” So, I narrowed it down to a few and instead oof writing a long essay on my choices, I thought I might write what I would want or hope to imagine would be on the back of the cover. You know, those long winded paragraphs explaining why the film is in the collection, that, despite the number of syllables in each sentence, manage to be surprisingly succinct. (These are not necessarily films that “deserve” to be there, but ones I would like to be there nonetheless, because I think they deserve it.) Well, here it goes, my Criterion Wish List.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) | Directed by Howard Hawks
Though it was scorned upon its initial release, continuing Hepburn’s reputation as “box office poison”, Howard Hawks’ brilliant film set the standard for the screwball comedy. Hepburn and Grant jump through wacky scenarios with great aplomb, and while its humor never ceases in any sense of the word, it is also the clever innuendos and sly commentary on the battle of the sexes that make this 1938 film a classic and on numerous lists as one of the best comedies ever made.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) | Directed by Marc Forster
Harold Crick hears voices in his head, but it isn’t schizophrenia. It’s someone narrating his life. Yes, Will Ferrell’s nuanced performance as Crick is the protagonist of a novel, and this, shall we say, “novel” approach to the existential drama makes for a memorable, yet underrated film. Filled with raw emotion, contemplations on the nature of tragedy and comedy, and clever visual effects, Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction is a unique, funny, and breathless film. (Art by grannyhall)
Manhattan (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
While Annie Hall may have marked a change in Woody Allen’s style, his masterpiece Manhattan marked the true transition from the laugh a minute bonkers style of Bananas to the more mature and heartfelt comedy of his later career. Photographed in gorgeous black and white by Gordon Willis, scored to the swelling and bustling music of George Gershwin, and set against the intellectual circles of Upper East Side Manhattan, Allen’s triumph is an exploration of relationships, maturity, intellect vs. morality, ethics, and love. (Art by trespasserswillbebeaten)
Clue (1985) | Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Is Clue the best film adaptation of a board game of all time? Taking place at the height of the Red Scare, while McCarthyism is rampant and J. Edgar Hoover has everyone on his list, Clue takes a group of people who are all connected by Washington DC and… a murder. But who did it, where, and with what? An all star cast presents a number of hilarious suspects. As the bodies stack, so the laughs, and beneath the veneer of hilariousness is a look at the effects of paranoia and Communism in the upper class. (Art by vargtimmen)
Mulholand Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
He made his mark in the 1970s with the cult classic Eraserhead and later in television with the iconic Twin Peaks. But David Lynch’s most poisonous love letter to Hollywood and cinema would start off as a pilot and transform into one of the most intriguing and enigmatic puzzle box films ever made. Mulholland Dr. puzzled audiences upon its release and continues to do so to this day. Featuring stellar performances from Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, travel down the road into a dream world and a nightmare. (Art by Midnight Marauder.)
Oslo, August 31st (2012) | Directed by Joachim Trier
He started out as a skateboarder, but Joachim Trier triggers more than mere adrenaline in his humane drama and loose remake of Louis Malles’s The Fire Within. In Oslo, August 31st, a young man just out of rehab (played beautifully by Anders Danielsen Lie) comes back to his home town once more to say goodbye. Few films are as raw and meticulously imbued with feeling as this outstanding Norwegian drama from one of the up and coming directors of this generation. (Art by grannyhall)
If you saw my personal top ten list of films, my personal favorites, you may have noticed that, instead of the standard ten, on there were technically thirteen. Some films were grouped together like thematic double features, while others stood on their own ground. Numerous (well, what I consider to be numerous) people asked me about this, specifically why. The reason: I’m indecisive.
Although it is my deepest desire and aspiration to become a professional film critic, I know my least favorite thing will be to compile any sort of end of the year list. That hasn’t really stopped me from making one for 2011 (though I published it in July 2012) or one even for 2012. But to make a list of my favorite films ever? I haven’t seen Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but I assume that’s what they were talking about during the torture debate.
So, I’m indecisive. I know it isn’t comparatively a lot next to people like Alex of And So It Begins, Tyler of Southern Vision, or Matt of the No-Name Movie Blog, but I’ve seen something like 1200 films and to reduce all of my favorites to a simple ten? A nightmare. It was hard enough compiling a list of 101 (where, again, I sort of cheated with some films). I have a running list on my computer of my favorite films and it has nearly 350 films on it.
So, I chose the films that I go back to, or would go back to, on a fairly regular basis. Such films included Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which is his most enjoyable and even most optimistic film; Clue, a delightful murder mystery comedy; Manhattan, Woody Allen’s gorgeous masterpiece; and Stranger Than Fiction, a touching examination of human life and the writing process. Other films I included were ones that left me thinking, that I could literally not stop talking about or thinking about: David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., his surreal poison love letter to Hollywood; Metropolis, arguably the most important film ever made; Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s deadpan eulogy for film; and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s majestic, adult fairy tale. And some film are just gorgeous and the kind of thing you want to watch over and over again: Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s most whimsical film (even at five hours); Modern Times, Chaplin’s last outing as the Tramp; Vivre sa Vie, Godard’s most humane film; and Nights of Cabiria, Fellini’s own fairy tale.
Bringing Up Baby is sort of a default answer as my favorite film of all time. It was one of the first films I ever saw and one that continues to make me laugh. I suppose I’m fortunate that the first film I fell in love with happens to be a staple of classic cinema, and one of the best screwball comedies ever made.
Now, onto why I grouped films together. I understand that such lists and their limitations (10, 20, 30, 101, etc.) are basically self-imposed, as a way to make the critic more decisive and definite about what he or she may declare their favorite or the best of cinema. I can barely do this because I am a weak person. I have no will power. I have no intention in investigating the philosophy or nature of lists, their arbitrary nature, etc. I also hate ranking things, which is why you can see most of my lists are in alphabetical order instead of something numbered. I am a terrible person.
So, grouping films together was my compromise. Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times were together as they represent political idealistic, almost utopian films, sort of social commentaries. The juxtaposition of drama and comedy, of silence and sound (sort of) is, of course, a little intentional. Mulholland Dr. and Holy Motors are the surreal companion pieces, both as much about the medium as they are about the industry, both incredibly intoxicating to watch, and both masterpieces of cinema. And finally, Nights of Cabiria and Vivre sa Vie, one a film out of the magical realism that Fellini had crafted out of the neo-realistic movement in Italy, the other a more humane drama or tableaux that Godard put together during the French New Wave. Both are, to me, companion pieces, both about women whose dreams have come crashing down into a world of almost lewd hedonism, something neither Giulietta Messina nor Anna Karina want. They’re both about prostitutes, and while their execution and detailed stories are different, their paths and the tragedy of both characters are extremely similar.
So, I grouped and doubled films generally by theme. I knocked some films off the list, which sort of hurt, but I’ll get over it. (I will miss you, galaxy far, far away…) It hurts to take off films that mean a lot to you, but I think list making is like some sort of masochistic activity that film buffs really enjoy partaking in. I also knocked off Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, and Casino Royale. The first two, I suppose, had more merit (to me) in terms of knocking them off because I didn’t go back to watch them as often as I did the Bond film. As a lifelong Bond fanatic, it pains me to knock something sort of unique on my list off in favor of what could be considered fairly canon material. Which, I guess, is the sham of the whole thing. It’s a combination of the canon and of the off the beaten path, but all of which fall under a personal meaning to me.
Though, I think that’s the point. Regardless of the masochism, the self imposed confinements and restraint, it’s about finding what means the most to you, even if that goes past your originally intended limit. It’s about sharing the films and experiences with others and finding both similarities and differences in those experiences. It is, I think, about enjoying what you are passionate about, engaging in your passion with other people, and continuing to explore that with those people. It isn’t a contest. It’s constant exploration, conversation, and broadening of understanding and depth and taste. And, most of all, cinephilia.
Thanks for reading and let me know what you think!
Shout out to Alex Withrow!
In alphabetical order…
- Bringing Up Baby (1938) | Directed by Howard Hawks
- Clue(1985) | Directed by Jonathan Lynn
- Fanny and Alexander (1982) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman
- Manhattan (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
- Melancholia (2011) | Directed by Lars von Trier
- Metropolis/Modern Times (1927/1936) | Directed by Firz Lang/Charlie Chaplin
- Mulholland Dr./Holy Motors (2001/2012) | Directed by David Lynch/Leos Carax
- Nights of Cabiria/Vivre sa Vie (1957/1962) | Directed by Federico Fellini/Jean-Luc Godard
- Pan’s Labyrinth (2007) | Directed by Guillermo del Toro
- Stranger Than Fiction (2006) | Directed by Marc Forster
(Films that were knocked off the list:
- Star Wars
- Casino Royale
- Singin’ in the Rain)
Feel free to comment and let me know what you think! (Yes, I cheated. No, I don’t care.)
Besides being absolutely fantastic and looking absolutely superb, there’s something a little different about the latest James Bond mission, Skyfall. Whether the presence of said difference is immediately noticeable or subtle and subversive is up to the audience, but one thing is clear: Skyfall is better because of its director. Yeah, screenwriter, cinematographer, Craig, Dench, etc. But the twenty-third entry into the longstanding 50 year old franchise has a particular man helming the picture: Sam Mendes.
Mendes won an Academy Award for Best Director for his work on the “is the grass really greener?” satire American Beauty, and has made his interesting mark on film with such works as Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road, and his stage production revival of Cabaret. With each film, Mendes has added his own elements, evolving his style, etc. While I don’t necessarily want to jump into the “is he an auteur?” argument, I do want to make this point: his reputability as a director is a rare thing for the Bond franchise, and his expertise as such obviously shows in the work.
As mentioned in my review for Skyfall, the last time a director of that kind of caliber was hired for a Bond film was for The World is Not Enough. Michael Apted, director of the Up documentary series, didn’t quite make the impression other directors have made. One could argue that Martin Campbell is a good director, but his films, such as Edge of Darkness and Defenseless, are significantly smaller and hardly well received. (Yes, he also did Green Lantern and the Zorro films.) But his two entries into the Bond franchise, GoldenEye and Casino Royale, are two of the best in the entire history of James Bond.
There is Marc Forster, whose film Stranger Than Fiction ranks amongst my very favorites (though, that is partly due to the screenwriter, Zach Helm), and Finding Neverland, which is very imaginative, but his entry into the Bond series, Quantum of Solace, is one of the most disappointing and forgettable films ever. Just ever. I like to pretend it never happened. Poorly directed, incoherently edited, and with a rambling script (that remained unfinished due to the 2008 Writer’s Strike), Quantum of Solace is also the only Bond film to be a direct sequel. Which is, well, not a good thing. In an attempt to follow the adrenaline packed Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace is a half-assed rehash of all the things that made its predecessor great. So, there’s him.
So, besides Mendes, Forster, and Apted, Bond’s history of directors hasn’t been terribly start studded. More than half of the Bond films were directed by one of three people: Terrence Young (3), Guy Hamilton (4), or John Glen (5). Then there were some sporadic choices, but no one with the name that Mendes has, and pretty much no one with that much prestige.
But now that Bond has been directed by an Oscar winner, and a guy who was once married to Kate Winslet, what does that mean for the future of Bond and his missions? I’m not going to spend time speculating who might direct the next Bond films, but one has to wonder what kind of people will direct the Bond films.
Mendes definitely added an element, and with him he brought a team of incredible people. Roger Deakins for cinematography, John Logan for screenwriting, and Thomas Newman for the score. So, with a stunning arsenal of a crew, does that mean that the people behind Bond’s future missions could be just as prestigious as the director?
Mendes’ films, from American Beauty to Revolutionary Road, are marked by their seamless balance between darkness and style. The best of Skyfall feels at times like the best of a spy thriller worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. World weary though Bond may be, he’s still the best character the spy genre. So, thus Mendes’ dark, almost cynical look at Bond fits the film perfectly, blending it effortlessly with Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography.
So, if other people take the helm of a Bond film, does that mean the Bond films will steadily get darker, more vulnerable, and look damn good? Will the next director continue to take Bond in a direction where a new canon is being created? Does this mean that the Bond films will look better, be directed better, — maybe just be better films? What do you think? What’s next for the quality of the Bond films?