Friday, February 4, 2011

More Like This

For all that I bitch about Hollywood's nosedive into hackery, I do truly believe that the best films of my lifetime are, in fact, the best ever made. Of course, the canon of the best anything of a given era is always in flux; of course, some of my favorite movies are widely reviled, or were greeted with cries of "what the hell is this?"

So, below, those I consider the most underrated films of my lifetime (the last two decades and change). If you also love it, awesome! (Fuck those other guys, amirite?) If you've never seen it, check it out, with as open a mind as you can muster! If you hate it, maybe try again? These are too incredible to remain storied failures, and there's only one way to recoup 'em. Go to!

10. Oliver Twist (Roman Polanski, 2005)

So, one of our greatest living filmmakers tackles one of our greatest dead novelists, and everybody forgets to show up. Nice. All bitterness aside, though, I'm still astonished that this superb adaptation failed to find an audience. Polanski was again deemed relevant following his deservedly adored The Pianist, and Sony decided to lob him one over the plate. They ultimately botched the project, but he hit it square: like few other movies in recent memory (War of the Worlds also comes to mind), Polanski's Twist serves as a reminder that shopworn, studio-gig material can still shine in the right hands. Any Polanski picture is worth watching for the masterful camera angles alone, here literally offering us a fresh perspective on a story we rightfully ought to be sick of. Of course, at this point, it's well nigh impossible to separate the director's work from his story, but in his case, biography is illuminating rather than deadening. Unlike, say, period-fetishist Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York (see here), Polanski actually knows these winding European streets, their crumbling edifices and cobbled alleyways. He also knows that even as they overflow with life, those cities are/were hermetic seals for the less fortunate; how better to explore those looming walls than through the eyes of one of the definitive fictional children?

As with The Pianist, the vibrant, gorgeous sets can't quite hide the blinding moments of violence and despair cutting through them. Also as in The Pianist (and Chinatown, and Bitter Moon, and The Ninth Gate...) Polanski's protagonist is ultimately helpless in the face of institutional decay, preferring to fade into the background, maybe after profiting from it all first. This is eloquent, professional filmmaking, the perfect blurring between craft and art--the sort of thing that keeps me coming back to multiplexes, asking for more. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Was it really just too familiar a story for us? Yeah, probably, but Polanski has built his peerless career on plumbing the soul-shaking depths behind generic surfaces, and there's nothing stale about his Twist.

9. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2002)

This is the only non-English entry on the list; commercial American film distribution being what it is, most great foreign films seem to me painfully undervalued, and it can be difficult to pick out individual cases. Trouble Every Day is an exception, and a true forehead-smacker at that. After her tutelage under Wenders and Jarmusch and building a remarkable filmography to (mostly) silence throughout the '90s, Claire Denis finally broke through at the international arthouse level with her dangerously luscious Beau travail in 1999. Predictably enough, her follow-up genre oddity was castigated as dark and difficult, and the hosannas melted away. Anyone who'd paid attention to Beau travail should've recognized Trouble Every Day as being perfectly of a piece with her remarkable aesthetic. Yes, Trouble Every Day is about cannibalism; sexy, sexy cannibalism. But it masterfully elides expository overload, performative histrionics, and fanboy pandering in favor of the director’s elliptical sensuality. Forget camera-as-eye, pen, gun, and certainly penis; for Denis and brilliant DP Agnès Godard, the camera’s a hand, outstretched, alternately caressing and flinching away from the film's fluid gore and feral sex.

That Denis' earlier I Can't Sleep turned out to be a serial killer drama deepened, rather than devalued, its examination of urban immigrant life, and the same alchemy's at work here. Look at the title. Trouble Every Day is about a constant, almost banal struggle, a drama of worry and restraint; it's an accumulation of suspense driven along by visual detail. A drop of blood on a shower curtain, hungry fingers intertwining through a crude, desperate fence, an imprint on a mattress where a woman once lay but doesn't any more...Trouble Every Day doesn't explode the horror film so much as refocus it, avoiding all poses but catching in every throat. Or at least, it ought to have. C'mon, cinephiles: it's a defiantly non-hipster film, yet still stars an ashen, skeletal, and beyond-sexy Vincent Gallo. What more could you want?

8. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, 2000)

This one's less a case of active dismissal than sight-unseen obscurity; people just didn't go see it. It's an unsurprising fate, though The House of Mirth is precisely the sort of impeccably arranged, flawlessly written, and beautifully acted humanist drama that the Academy (among others) should exist to reward. On the surface, Terence Davies' oeuvre epitomizes what Eddie Izzard perceptively labeled the "staircase to a room with a view of a pond" style that dominated British filmmaking before the country began playing a desperate game of catch-up with Hollywood. Yet films like The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices/Still Lives couldn’t be further from fussy, framing the pitiless cruelties of insiders toward outsiders in drifting, slowly unraveling narratives. The House of Mirth, with its Wharton pedigree and emphasis on stately dialogue scenes (strict acting math, of twos and fours), is less formally deviant than his previous work, but is no less thorough—or tragic—in its examination of silver-tongued savagery. The pleasure of watching big names like Laura Linney and Anthony LaPaglia slither and dart their way through such breathlessly eloquent, emotionally loaded encounters can’t be overstated. Any aficionado of film acting should be delighted beyond measure. Still, the soul of Davies’ work is primarily both meditative and wearily fatalistic, a dichotomy that finds its soul in the eternal Lily Bart.

Gillian Anderson orients her performance around her voice, throaty and amused and strident and ever out-of-place, like no player since Streep in Bridges of Madison County. Her painstaking downfall, sketched with such empathy by Davies (writer as well as director) is a product of both high New York’s relentless cruelty and her own delusional pride. Neither are blunt bogeymen, but living, kinetic forces, peering through Linney’s narrowed eyes and bursting forth in Anderson’s ragged final laments. Watch that impossibly lovely fade leaving a mansion a veritable mausoleum, or that merciless closing text stranding these vibrant souls forever in “New York, 1907,” and tell me that replacing Merchant Ivory with frenetic dreck like The King’s Speech was anything but a huge own goal.

7. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1996)

This masterpiece is gradually being recognized as such, as critics have set aside the knee-jerk belittlement that greeted the film's release and gotten lost in its weird, remarkable depths. Rightfully so: Dead Man is one of the greatest American movies ever made, full stop. It's also a two-hour justification for the continuing relevance of Jim Jarmusch, whose status as hipster deity has increasingly cut both ways in the decades since Stranger than Paradise. Dead Man is full of deadpan humor and shaggy-dog tales and aimless wandering, but there’s little irony to be found, and no one would call it minimalist. It’s sprawling and shifty, as committed to letting Johnny Depp die as The Godfather was with Brando, but more interested in the artifice of and decay behind America’s masculine mythos than the bolstering of the same. Jarmusch’s outside-ness isn’t a generational pose here so much as a national one; indeed, as with Richard Linklater, there’s been far too much press on Jarmusch’s supposedly epochal qualities and less on his timeless vision.

As in his equally underappreciated Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, the director restlessly exposes the ugliness, banality, and oppression running through certain genre mythologies, and the resulting trip might actually reveal quite a bit more about America and how we tell it than (the brilliant) No Country for Old Men. But there’s the druggy storytelling and blown-out black-and-white and odd riffs on Western iconography and also Iggy Pop for some reason, and so Dead Man is still easier to dismiss as limp pastiche than wrestle with as a silent, sidelong strike at the heart of American grandiosity—and grandiose American filmmaking. The key to Dead Man may always be Neil Young’s crackling score: furious and mournful, seething like a low flame licking at the edges of the frame. Gary Farmer’s Nobody, a Native American, can sing along to it, while Depp’s William Blake, hunched under his name and inevitable death, can only stare. Such is the nothing-fate of blinkered white slackers, of whom Jarmusch might not actually be the patron saint.

6. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Wait, so, why is this supposed to be a failure, again? Perhaps the least-regarded David Lynch film (right down there with Dune, which actually deserves it), Fire Walk With Me was stillborn in the show's long shadow, and has since been the victim of the curious blindness--common even among his devoted fans--to the director's feature filmography between Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. I wouldn't rank Fire Walk With Me alongside those epochal triumphs, and there's very little art I hold in higher esteem than Twin Peaks itself. But then, that's reason enough to love Fire Walk With Me right there: is 134 more minutes (three episodes’ worth!) of the most brilliant phenomenon network TV ever allowed on the air anything to sniff at? Indeed, I wonder if the movie is even remotely comprehensible without the show as an almost literal subtext. As is, it's certainly a more unsettlingly non-linear work than Eraserhead or Lost Highway, pointing the way forward to the digital abstractions of Inland Empire.

But perhaps more than any of his other works, Fire Walk With Me exemplifies why this often obtuse artist has so many decidedly non-film-geek fans. Lynch cuts and weaves in strange and baffling ways, but only to deliver on Emotions, all of them, often in the same scene, leaving both Cinema of Quality and austere Euro-art distantiation behind. The constant aura of the uncanny (often created by the simplest of contrasts and juxtapositions) lends his films’ overwhelming affectivity a sense of the sui generis. This will sound ridiculous, but it’s as if I’m feeling fear and humor and tenderness for the first time, which is perhaps why Lynch gets cast as a maverick oddball even as he flaunts his references and keeps faith with various filmic traditions. With the narrative stowed safely away, Lynch is free to conjure up some of his most exquisite compositions and unearthly sounds. Fire Walk With Me is Twin Peaks’ ghost, obsessed with untethered details, lingering long over what was once left un-visualized, driven by the almost unconscious sense of tragedy that is Lynch’s most overlooked quality as an intensely emotive artist.

5. A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001)

Kubrick probably would've loved it, but the first step to fully appreciating Spielberg's greatest work yet is letting it be his, not his mentor's. Philosophical weight and emotional devastation aren’t glued together in A.I--they’re revealed as one and the same. Blockbuster aesthetics (including the dazzlingly tactile work of longtime Spielberg DP Janusz Kaminski) ground the director’s sincere exploration of the limits of humanity in stunning images of a neon future on the brink, and a too-clean household desperate to ignore it. It’s that cruel gap between the family and the world that Spielberg’s been exploring all along, given life in the ragged, sorrowful cut from an abandoned David to Gigolo Joe’s sudden introduction: it’s a moment so heartbreaking that it tears the very movie apart. The grave reverence of Schindler’s List is stripped away, leaving behind the terrifying unknowable future. On the big screen, fantasy is far less safe and can be far more frightening than history, as Spielberg would prove again with his War of the Worlds. Yet this film could be the origin story of prejudice itself, from the primal “Orga…Mecha” division among the kids to the howling adults tearing robots apart, tying the KKK and Glenn Beck rallies together in a very, yes, Kubrickian fashion, but with a tearing sorrow wrapped up in a child’s face that looks, even to the mass murderers, real.

But A.I. is still more than wondrous sci-fi myth-making or exquisitely affective drama. It’s that ending, that which infuriated the unwilling the most, which reveals what A.I. really is: a fable about the end of the human race. Like 2001, its vision of that ending, what it will mean and what will be left, is monolithic. That Spielberg’s attempt at reconciling such awesome, terrible truths to a mass audience was met with confusion and dismay is depressing, but understandable. For a supposed sentimentalist, Spielberg refuses to make the end of us easy on us, and A.I. is the most glorious testament to his complex, irreducible artistry.

4. Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995)

Maybe I'm a hopeless contrarian, or maybe (definitely) I'm just a helpless Verhoeven fanboy. But I can't help but love Showgirls, whose camp classic status blots out an actually brilliant movie. RoboCop and Starship Troopers, for all their comic-book vulgarity, are increasingly recognized as trenchant, groundbreaking satire, so why is the middle child still thrown out with the trash? Perhaps boobs are harder to forgive than blood or bugs. Is there some rule that a movie with a stripper pole planted dead center can’t say anything significant or deliver genuine emotional heft? In its tragicomic depiction of a showbiz giddily devouring its dreamers alive, Showgirls is every bit as goofily on-target as Verhoeven’s (relatively) more appreciated flicks. I’m tempted to argue that dismissive Hollywood insiders found the satire a bit too accurate, but Showgirls is rather a sadly classic case of a unique film caught between audiences. It was, of course, too overtly trashy to be redeemed by those who considered Forrest Gump to be the finest Hollywood picture of the mid-‘90s, but it was also too finely dramatic--and too doggedly sympathetic to its abused women—to appeal to the grindhouse-oriented Tarantino cult.

Indeed, post-Pulp Fiction, Verhoeven’s particular brand of exaggerated genre hysteria must’ve seemed increasingly of another era. The Dutch director is one of Hollywood’s greatest outsiders, worthy of belonging to the émigré canon of Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Polanski. If comparing Showgirls to Chinatown and A Clockwork Orange seems absurd, it may be because high-low distinctions still carry more weight than the postmodernists would have us believe. Of course Showgirls is packed full of morons, drowning in their champagne bubble-baths, but I admire Verhoeven’s refusal to elevate (or even dignify) their struggles while still recognizing the nasty little tragedy at the heart of his spoof. If the film’s sleazy come-ons are more awkward (and, yes, hilarious) then sensual, perhaps that’s to keep our attention where it belongs: on the painful artifice of it all. Drunk on its own delusions, Showgirls is ripe for non-ironic recoupment. So good that it's just really fucking good.

3. Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000)

The problem, of course, with using a mass medium like the movies to attack media illiteracy is that if you’re right, your work probably won’t sell that well. Besides which, if a passionate, overwhelmingly emotional drama like Spike Lee’s 25th Hour got panned for featuring New Yorkers actually, y’know, talking about 9/11, then his Bamboozled never stood a chance. Furiously and defiantly ugly, Bamboozled unleashes its director’s righteous anger unfiltered, and so was met with the usual criticisms that keep his films out of multiplexes. All of which were not only shit, but close cousins to the “same shit done over” that Lee’s film exposes as inherent to a compromised, unthinkingly racist national media. Too scattered and fragmented? Bamboozled is indeed a cacophony of voices, cutting each other off and drowning each other out, none wholly sympathetic even as weary tragedy replaces black comedy—but this is the correct way, the only correct way, to plug in to the confusion and postmodern denial at the heart of contemporary American racial politics. Too stylized and over-the-top? No more so than Tarantino, whom the film specifically calls out and condemns for hiding real prejudice behind postmodern cool; Lee’s own aestheticization has to do with the deceptive powers of performance.

Too black, too strong; Bamboozled is sadly, horrifyingly dead on, locating the heart of contemporary exploitation of American blacks in a very sensitive source—namely, entertainment. “The New Millennium Minstrel Show” is set neither in the projects nor a plantation, but in a watermelon patch, stripped of history and offered up for the sheer passive pleasure of gaping audiences. Most of Bamboozled is shot in grimy video, the better to reflect the tawdry ambitions of those within, but the show-within-a-movie sequences are in grossly eye-popping film. So does Lee implicate his own medium, the great seducer and deceiver, in centuries of prejudice and hate. My least favorite phrase common to conversations about movies: “C’mon, it’s just a comedy!” Bamboozled betrays that lie. Few things can be more dangerous than the drive to “just make ‘em laugh.”

2. The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)

Film is a modernist, industrial artform, leaning towards self-containment by design. But it's also a link in the great chain of human expression, building off of the forms and contents of novels, plays, paintings, and music, linked to personal and collective histories. My disenchantment (a key word for The Village) with most contemporary American movies has to do in large part with the breakdown of this delicate relationship. Modern genre trash gets both sides wrong: it unthinkingly mimics the handed-down clichés of expression, stunting film’s growth as an independent medium in a digital era, while simultaneously disavowing critical engagement with older art forms, and more importantly, older mythologies. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village restores the balance to its properly disturbing, eternally questioning state; so, naturally, everybody hated it. Shyamalan’s storytelling and image-making puts, yes, even Spielberg to shame, but is suffused with the dread of a big lie falling to pieces. Suspense is built and then oddly cut off, as if our fingertips had just barely brushed some horrible secret. (Sigourney Weaver’s hand is outstretched, but William Hurt can’t let himself take it.)

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, of Coens fame, captures (suspiciously) vivid reds and yellows with sinister gliding shots and awe-inspiring use of foreground, but the most memorable shots are those that hint at a distance, at a jerry-rigged artifice that lays the unconscious framework for those shattering final revelations. An astonishingly touching romance is kindled on the porch, but the fog grows in the background. Young people heroically strive past the fictional world they’ve been handed, while the elders crowd behind the curtain, hands shaking and voices cracking as they try to keep the kids searching for the WMDs. When the lies are stripped away, The Village reveals itself, not as a thriller or a period piece, but a work of decidedly national fiction, rooted not in Hollywood genre mechanics, but in Irving and Hawthorne. The real (American) terror of The Village is not that there are witches in the woods, but that there aren’t, and even more so, that it was less frightening when we thought there were.

1. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

I can't mention Stanley Kubrick's last stand, my very favorite movie, without linking to Tim Kreider's beyond-brilliant excavation of Kubrick's true themes and preoccupations; it's perhaps the greatest piece of film criticism I've ever read. Then again, like Bamboozled, a great deal of Eyes Wide Shut's shattering brilliance is practically predicated on dismissal, on confusion, on blindness. Eyes Wide Shut is about nothing less than a catastrophic collective failure to see and understand, on the part of filmgoers right alongside the unthinking Dr. and Mrs. Bill Harford. It’s no more a “parable about marriage,” as some contemporary revisionists would have it, than it ever was an “erotic thriller.” Kubrick never once thought that small. His films from Dr. Strangelove forward are one staggeringly ambitious suite cutting the big, dumb 20th century open on a morgue slab, like the murdered woman who lingers, like an uncomfortable truth, behind the “sexual” “fantasies” of Eyes Wide Shut. Like Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s last film takes aim at the present while couched within the past; the director’s adaptation of Dream Story, a novella set in fin-de-siècle Vienna, links the violent imperial oppression of Old Europe to the blind class exploitation of New Manhattan. But as in The Shining, Kubrick filters his colossal critique through one bewildered family, intentional ciphers who fall back on sex to forget about the hidden horrors of wealth and power—horrors often propagated, of course, by sex.

Eyes Wide Shut, then, is about perhaps the definitive tragedy of both the 19th and 20th centuries: the failure of the educated middlemen, the media-informed voters, the “nice people,” to protect the eternally exploited masses from the old, rich elites. What’s so frightening about the latter (“all the best people,” remember) is not their unrestrained power, so much as the casually, unthinkingly evil ways in which they abuse it, to the detriment of all not wearing cloaks and masks. What can those of us caught in the middle do? We have sex, go to movies, grumble if they aren’t sexy, and have nightmares about being unmasked. Do we wake up?

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