Rightwing Film Geek

My Best of the Year “Skandies” ballot

And here is what I DID vote for, with some blathering after each category. Remember, 100 points to distribute to exactly 10 films, performances, scripts, etc.; minimum of 5, maximum of 30. (Also available here; the whole 2007 Skandies site here).

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Film (and Top 10)
20 No Country for Old Men
17 Hot Fuzz
10 Atonement
10 Private Fears in Public Places
10 Into Great Silence
8 There Will Be Blood
7 Grindhouse
7 The Lives of Others
6 Gone Baby Gone
5 Joshua

The top 2 were the only films I saw all year to which eventually gave a 10 grade, and I saw all the top 8 at least twice … hence the big points gap between #2 and #3.

I’d like to think this list at least displays a very catholic taste, at the populist end of the film-snob spectrum — 7 films in English and 3 foreign (though one of the three has very little dialog, and I wouldn’t have been unhappy with none). Two of the films (#2 and #7) that have pretty much nothing “meaningful” to do with anything except having a great time, though I should add that I think all these films, with the exception of #5 and maybe #4, I’d recommend without hesitation to any intelligent adult.

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February 16, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 4 Comments

Enough about Romania

Just a couple of short items …

● A film I saw at Toronto in 2006, VINCE VAUGHN’S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW was released Friday and I’ve added a link at the right to my review from then. I didn’t really recommend it back then, but I must acknowledge that the memory of it plays better in my head now than the film did at the time.

● I’ve started my 2008 Ten Best List, now that there’s at least 10 films that have releases made or scheduled that I have seen and graded at least 5/”mixed.” This is still only February, so I note simply that there’s only three films on that list that are certain shoo-ins, with two others that are “on the bubble.” The other five, though I’d recommend all at least somewhat, will not even be Honorable Mentions.

● The critics at Christianity Today revealed a couple of days ago their list of the year’s 10 Best Films (technically called Critics Choice), with JUNO on top, followed by the Evangelical Self-Hate Masterpiece THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and ATONEMENT, with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and INTO GREAT SILENCE on the list. (The slightly different list of the 10 Most Redeeming Films, topped by the German Monk Movie, is here. I’m stunned at the poor showings for HOT FUZZ and GRINDHOUSE!!!) I think I’ll repeat something I said a few weeks ago when the Oscars were announced: that the best films of the year so clearly declared themselves, that there was no denying them.

February 9, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Skandie time

Every year since 1998, I have been invited to participate in Mike D’Angelo’s Retarded Movie-Nerd Survey™ (I am the Pinochet-Admiring Lunatic, in case there was any suspense). This ballot shapes my movie-going and defines the end of the year — here is last year’s survey and my ballot; I’ll put the other years up on a page here overnight.

Mike is counting down the survey’s eight categories (Film, Director, Script, Scene, the four acting categories), starting with Number 20 earlier today (ATONEMENT should have been way higher folks). I spent last weekend putting my ballot together, and I will reveal its contents later, in deference to Mike’s standing request that voters sit on their individual ballots until after the countdown is over.

January 28, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Speaking of knee-jerk

At least Blockbuster and the Blog-rating have the excuse of being dumb (in every sense) mechanical programs. But what is the American Spectator’s excuse for this bit of unfocused spite, against the AFI Top 100 list.

It’s fine to take down a consensus masterpiece (I was one of the cinephiles who saw the first efforts of Vlad the Impaler). But reading through this dreck by Larry Thornberry, it’s hard to see what he has exactly against KANE.

He makes exactly one serious, sane point made against the film, an observation that counts as criticism. Slathering negative adjectives and sneering at “film majors and various other humbugs” doesn’t count. Nor do also potentially-serious points that are actually factually wrong, such as “it’s long” (it’s 1 minute short of two hours, which is the “standard” feature-length), or that betray fundamental misunderstandings such as “Welles is pompous” (Kane the character often is; Welles the man is completely self-effacing, here at least).

In addition, all his criticisms against KANE also apply to the other films on the list that he explicitly approves of. BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (not “over”) and THE GODFATHER are far longer than KANE and THE SEARCHERS is exactly the same length. CASABLANCA and DUCK SOUP (Harpo aside) are talkier films. And no movie that screeches to a halt for the BJ Thomas “Raindrops Are Falling on My Head” interlude can even pretend to be about Butch Cassidy or anything other than the 60s Summer of Love.

Thornberry’s one serious well-taken point against KANE is that “it’s talky.” Which is to some extent true. But apart from the already-noted double standard, and the fact that lots of great movies are “talky” if the “talk” is great (including those of former American Spectator editor Whit Stillman), he also completely ignores the fact that by far the larger part of the standard pro-KANE panegyric is about how VISUAL the film is. KANE is a stylistically dense masterpiece, of light and shadow, of true blacks, of German expressionist lighting, of deep focus, of visual metaphor, etc. Here’s a quick, cheap primer.


I’m no fan of formal credentialism in the field of film criticism, but it’s hard to imagine why someone would be qualified to dismiss KANE if he thinks he can get off doing so without mentioning the film’s extremely distinctive visual style. How out of touch with the field of film criticism — populist, highbrow or otherwise — can he be?

The rest of his article is just a bunch of cheap shots that are even less developed than his attack on KANE — GONE WITH THE WIND is long; 2001 is obscure; RAGING BULL is boring; TITANIC is long and expensive; SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and BONNIE AND CLYDE celebrates criminals (THE GODFATHER and BUTCH CASSIDY don’t?); Benjamin in THE GRADUATE is stupid; THE DEER HUNTER wasn’t made by a Vietnam vet … and much more.

I wish Bob Tyrrell gave his raspberry-filled J. Gordon Coogler Award to magazine articles. The 2007 winner wouldn’t have had far to travel for the presentation.

June 25, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Top 100 Catholic Movies (sic)

A couple of years ago, the National Catholic Register (that’s the good NCR) asked readers to nominate (and later vote on) “films that best celebrate Catholic life … movies with specific Catholic references, not simply with Catholic themes.” The results of the more than 1,000 votes are here. I wasn’t impressed. Like all popular polls, this is basically a list of “Catholic” movies people remember having seen recently (or in some cases treasure from their youth).

But, as much as I like it (as I said at the time), I don’t believe there is any way that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (#1) is that much a better film than THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (#48). Or even better at all. But that I can chalk up to taste — and Dreyer is an acquired one — and to the obscurity and difficulty that an 80-year-old silent film poses for most. And since Gibson did in fact make a great film, I can’t call honoring PASSION OF THE CHRIST unworthy. But what either film has to do with “Catholic life” (particularly as distinguished from “Catholic themes”) is unclear at best.

There are also a lot of downright bad films on the list, starting all the way up at #2 — though I can chalk that particular one up to taste also (or more precisely, my distaste for easy uplift). But the #11(!!!!) showing for the 2004 THERESE is just a crime — the worst example of both presentism and judging a work of art by its surface content. There is no way, no how that the 2004 THERESE belongs on any list of honor or high regard. Particularly so much higher than the French THERESE from 1986 — Alain Cavalier’s film is down at #79. That is merely a reflection of how many have seen the film, and how recently. If this gets repeated in 2025, the 2004 THERESE will be forgotten.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Searching for the canon

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Stephen Metcalf has an essay at Slate on John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS with the dead giveaway title “The Worst Best Movie: Why on earth did The Searchers get canonized?” I have to place myself in the same camp as Metcalf, at least in terms of the “all-time greatest” accolades with which THE SEARCHERS is garlanded. I like the film some, but that #8 is for a very weak year, at least in the terms of the films I have seen. Only the Top 4 for that year would I unhesitatingly call “great.” Middle-of-the-pack films by Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock (both of whom I much prefer to Ford in general) are ahead of THE SEARCHERS, and of the 10 years surrounding 1956, only in one other would it be in my Top 10.

Now THE SEARCHERS starts out with the flaw that I am not the world’s #1 fan of Westerns and think John Ford had some intrinsic flaws as a filmmaker, from overscoring with hammer-over-the-head music to horribly unfunny “comic relief.” I’ve now seen the film three times (never in a theater, though), and both repeat viewings reinforced my position on it — uneven, with brilliant and unbearable sequences in about equal measure, the brilliance becoming more brilliant with time and the unbearableness becoming more unbearable.

The early Comanche raid on the cabin is brilliantly staged and cut; Ethan’s arrival and all the various subtexts are handled with unFordian nuance and tact (like the way the sister-in-law caresses Ethan’s uniform when they leave on the raid); the family burial is quietly moving; the teepee meeting with Scar a nervy but stoic portrayal of two men who know that honor requires that they kill each other tomorrow. And John Wayne (with one major reservation noted below) gives a brilliant performance as Ethan, easily his best, as a man teetering on the edge of sanity — I don’t agree with Richard Schickel’s complaint in Schickel on Film that Wayne’s performance is not sustained. This very “unevenness” — Wayne shifting in between darkly menacing moments and his more-customary gruff geniality — is what makes the portrayal effective. You don’t know which Wayne you’re gonna get, and when he can keep the mask of sanity on.

But ohmigawd do big chunks of THE SEARCHERS blow big chunks. The scenes with the Indian bride Luke just made me wince, played in a register that makes Butterfly McQueen look like Angela Davis. Lord knows, I am a flaming reactionary with no sympathy for feminist and noble-Indians schools of social/film criticism; but sometimes you gotta give the devil her due. I’ll overlook pretty much anything in the name of excitement or a joke, but these scenes are witless, which makes its patronizing attitudes embarassing. When Jeffrey Hunter kicks Luke out of their “bed” and down a sand dune, while Ethan chuckles along with a jolly air, it just makes you think “maybe Leonard Peltier had a point.”

Nor is this admittedly short sequence the only flaw in this vein. Several of the characters are just as caricatured as Luke: Vera Miles’ suitor, Mose, the cavalry unit’s leader, Mr. Jorgenson. Those who play these cartoons play down to them well enough, I suppose, but I didn’t laugh once, primarily because the film isn’t a spoof. In every scene involving Mose, I think ‘what could Howard Stern’s Stuttering John do with this role?’ Jeffrey Hunter is a callow nonentity; compare Michael Caine and Sean Connery in John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING to see what can be made of a boys’ genre piece about two men on an epic quest, one of whom goes batty, when the casting is strong for both lead parts. The fight between the suitors seemed ritualistic in all the worst senses of the word. Maybe chicks in the 1870s (or 1950s) were different, but that closeup of Vera Miles beaming (in her white wedding dress, no less!!) as her two men fight over her, just seems to me like the worst sort of patronizing macho wish-fulfillment that feminists would like to think defines the male mind (sic).

The last significant plot point, Wayne’s picking up Natalie Wood, is much praised, but to me and Metcalf, it just seems like an arbitrary wuss-out and a way to create a critical puzzle that can never be solved. Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the famous last shot of THE SEARCHERS, though its point — the gap between the civilizer and civilization, and how the man who creates order does so on behalf of an institution toward which he is fundamentally an outsider — was explored much more effectively by Ford in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (here’s G-Money on that film).

But such skepticism is a minority view among hard-core film buffs, as Metcalf notes, making many of the same criticisms I just did. For a quarter-century now, THE SEARCHERS has consistently ranked among the top films of all-time in critics polls. In the decennial Sight & Sound poll (as close to a BCS system as the film-geek world has) THE SEARCHERS first placed in the Top 10 in 1982, when the poll was all critics. Since then a shift and a gradual dropoff has occurred. The 1992 poll had Ford’s film placing fifth among critics, but nowhere in the Top 10 among filmmakers. The 2002 poll showed the same split, though at a somewhat lower level, with THE SEARCHERS finishing tied for 11th among critics but barely in the Top 30 for filmmakers. There’s no doubting THE SEARCHERS’ influence on a handful of American directors, but, as the S&S Poll numbers above show, its cachet among film-makers is slipping and now primarily belongs to critics. Metcalf kind of acknowledges this, referring only to the first generation of film-school-educated directors. I think this hints at an explanation for THE SEARCHERS continuing popularity among critics.

In his very good essay on Ford, Schickel makes the point that many critics of his generation (he compares his reaction to generational cohorts Lindsay Anderson and Andrew Sarris) “had his eyes opened to the notion that movies might be something more than an instrument for fantastic escape from childhood constraints, picked up his first hints of film’s larger possibilities as an expressive form, and made his first inchoate emotional responses to that form … because of John Ford’s pictures.” I wrote a little bit below about the Warner cartoons and myself, noting that one of the first things a critic does is grapple with the (largely, but not totally, pre-critical) opinions of his childhood. Such eminent critics and champions of Ford today include Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr, who would also fit Schickel’s description, at least in terms of the raw data of year of birth. Though it doesn’t focus on THE SEARCHERS, Rosenbaum’s 2004 essay in Rouge on Ford’s THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is a perfect example of combining an intensely personal boyhood love, autobiography, and one’s adult sensibility.

But with me, no. Ford made his last fiction film the year I was born and had died before I ever heard of him. My eyes were first opened to cinephilia by Hitchcock and Wilder from the past, Kubrick and Scorsese from the then-present, and Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa among the furriners. I don’t think these factors are unrelated. Living my boyhood in another country, I don’t think I ever watched more of any Western than a TV promo clip. The whole genre just seemed bizarre to me. Also John Wayne was not the mythic presence, the very embodiment of “us,” that he was for Americans. While I no longer dismiss the Western tout court, the mythic love that Wayne and Ford could once tap into, and the residues of which remain forever, cannot be assented to, only unconsciously absorbed.

July 16, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Screener update

Daily Variety reports today (link requires registration) that the major studios and the MPAA will reverse their ban on screeners, but only for Academy members. There will still be a ban on sending tapes and discs to critics and members of the various guilds. Daily Variety says that “an announcement is expected this week.”

The continuing ban on critics screeners is only likely to further anger professional critics, fueling their argument that this is really an effort to cut them out of the “Oscar buzz” game. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association announced at the weekend that it would cancel its year-end awards in protest. The group customarily gives out its awards in mid-December, and last year was the second major critics group to announce its winners, after the National Board of Review. (They later reversed themselves.)

I don’t think this was a wise move — canceling outright rather than announcing in January, though I understand the emotional satisfaction that kicking the studios in the teeth might give. For one thing, canceling tends to suggest that the group’s real agenda is not to honor the best films, but affect the Oscar race. Now, the latter is not a bad thing in itself, and most years I prefer the LA critics circle winners to those of the Academy — so they’re pushing the Academy in a direction I generally approve. But to cancel the awards outright rather than giving them in January is throwing the baby (honoring the best films) out with the bathwater (influencing the Academy).

Further, I’m not so sure that, for pro critics, screeners affect their ability to see the December Oscar bait *that much.* I know pro critics who avoid looking at tapes or discs as much as they can, and still see every film at a critics screening by early or mid-December. Screeners are certainly convenient, especially for repeat viewings and making up a missed screening, but hardly necessary.

October 21, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment