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A Brief Look at the Best of 2011

My list of the best movies I saw in 2011 is coming a little later than usual, but I missed a lot the last few months of the year and I’ve been catching up the last several months. It includes films you might expect to see, like The Tree of Life and A Separation, but I also saw fit to include some curiously overlooked films like the brilliant Meek’s Cutoff (which in time I expect to jump up one or two spots – it’s truly a classic American film) and Cold Weather. I haven’t had a chance to write up a longer piece about the list, but I wanted to post this brief list of the best of 2011.

1. The Tree of Life (d. Terrence Malick)

2. A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, d. Asghar Farhadi)

3. Meek’s Cutoff (d. Kelly Reichardt)

4. Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, d. Xavier Beauvois)

5. The Artist (d. Michel Hazanavicius)

6. Certified Copy (Copie conforme, d. Abbas Kiarostami)

7. 13 Assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku, d. Takashi Miike)

8. Bridesmaids (d. Paul Feig)

9. Cold Weather (d. Aaron Katz)

10. Drive (d. Nicholas Winding Refn)

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One Life to Live Comes to an End: ABC’s Race to the Bottom

The final cast photo for One Life to Live

Most of my readers and some of my friends will be surprised to learn that I have had a 25+ year obsession with the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. The show, which aired its last episode last Friday, embodies everything I love about storytelling which, for me, is the crux of my love for movies (and books, theater, opera, etc.) Any episode could swing effortlessly between romantic melodrama, heart-pounding action, self-aware parody, witty comedy, and socially conscious commentary. It was a smorgasbord of narrative storytelling that has allowed me to giddily follow characters for, in some cases, decades.

When ABC announced the cancellation of One Life to Live in April, it hit me like a bomb in a wedding cake. I had been hearing rumors of the show’s inevitable demise for a few years, but it never felt like a real threat until then. Still, the end wouldn’t be until January, so there was still plenty of time to stay immersed in the trials and tribulations of my favorite fictional town, Llanview, Pennsylvania and I didn’t have to process what I would be losing until the time came.

Friday, however, was the day. (Fitting that it was Friday the 13th.) The last of 11,105 episodes of One Life to Live, which has been aired continuously, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, since 1968. My grandma and mom both watched One Life to Live (in addition to Days of Our Lives and General Hospital) and, though these shows were always on during the summer months, it wasn’t until about 1985 that I began to take notice. And it didn’t take long for me to get hooked.

While I was moderately interested in the other two shows, One Life to Live stood out as the best of the bunch. I loved the characters, storylines, and the history which my mom dutifully explained, no matter how complex the relationships or histories might have been. I think the first storyline I really paid attention to was the famous faux Bo storyline, as it has become affectionately known among fans. Patrick London got plastic surgery to become Bo’s doppelganger, kidnapped him, and took his place in so he could drug Bo’s billionaire father Asa and steal his company. Then he and his accomplices (Elizabeth Saunders, I believe) had to kidnap his wife Didi and his ex-wife Delilah as they got suspicious, holding them all prisoner in a basement. What a great story! It cheesy as all get up, but who cares? It’s a soap opera. It’s supposed to be over the top. Someone kindly put together clips of the climax of the story. Excuse the bad audio:

Like any show that spans decades, One Life to Live went through its bad spells and I would stop watching for a year or two, but something would always pull me back. I even went through a period in the mid to late 1990s when I looked down my nose at the soap opera genre, letting snobs who had never spent more than an afternoon with a soap dictate my views on the shows. But as I got older I began to appreciate the absurd storylines even more and I came back. And over the years I was treated to more great storytelling.

 Victoria Lord Gordon Riley Burke Riley Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks

 

Erika Slezak as Viki on the phone, with Andrea Evans as Tina looking on

Viki, played magisterially by Erika Slezak (daughter of Walter Slezak) since 1971, was the center of the show. Daughter of on overbearing newspaper publisher, good-natured Viki has struggled with meeting her father’s expectations while still making a full and independent life for herself. Over the years she has suffered with multiple personality disorder, allowing some great acting opportunities for Slezak, especially when she remembered her father sexually abused her in the 1990s. And all the marriages! If you account for them all, her name would be Victoria Lord Gordon Riley Burke Riley Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks. Whew. She’s buried three husbands and divorced three or four times. She’s also had a stroke, a heart attack, a heart transplant (with a heart donated from her recently-deceased husband Ben), been raped, had breast cancer and a mastectomy, and she’s been shot a few of times. She’s died more than once, visiting heaven, giving her a chance to catch up with deceased characters. Most of her children and grandchildren have been kidnapped at some point in their lives. Any real person would have been reduced to a blubbering mess with just a couple of these. Viki has held strong.

While Viki is the center, she’s hardly all there was to Llanview. An intense rivalry between Viki and Dorian has been simmering since the 1970s. In the 1980s alone we had the Cord-Tina-Max love triangle. Mitch Laurence and his cult. Gabrielle’s baby-switching shenanigans. Maria’s psychotic obsession with Clint and her subsequent murder. A trip back to 1888. And we can’t forget the underground city of Eterna.

Not all the stories were frivolous. The melodrama in any good soap is peppered with topical stories that touch on relevant social issues.  In the early 1990s, bad girl Marty Seybrook was gang raped at a frat house and she mistakenly accuses Viki’s son Kevin as a participant, setting up a surprisingly thoughtful and provoking story arc. They’ve also dealt with interracial romance, racism, breast cancer, AIDS, child sexual abuse, lupus, teen pregnancy, addiction, and, most recently, bullying.

Billy Douglas

 

Ryan Phillippe as closeted teen Billy Douglas (with Susan Haskell as Marty Seybrook)

But for me, the best of these, the story that touched me personally was the Billy Douglas story. It was 1992 when a young Ryan Phillippe made his debut on the show as Billy and it soon became clear that the good looking, clean cut, All American boy was hiding a secret, terrified someone would find out he’s gay. I had only come out to my parents two years before, at a time when there was really little positive portrayals of gays on TV, unless it was a movie of the week about AIDS or a guest spot on The Golden Girls. I don’t know that I can express how much it meant to see a teenage boy on the show I loved going through many of the same things I was going through: the fear, the alienation, the uncertainty. There was something affirming about seeing Billy expressing the same feelings and fears I had.

ABC didn’t have the courage to let Billy’s character grow up on the show. That would mean he might have *gasp* sex and they weren’t ready for that in 1992. The show did redeem itself with the wonderful romance between closeted police officer Oliver Fish and his former college lover, Kyle Lewis a couple of years ago, culminating in a groundbreaking gay sex scene, something I never thought I would see on daytime TV. I wasn’t happy that they ended their arc so abruptly, but at least they were given a happy ending and a baby to raise to boot.

Why Are Soaps Dying?

TV executives are some of the most uncreative, gutless executives in the entertainment industry. They make movies executives look like profiles in courage. Soaps aren’t dying because people are tuning out. Ratings might be going down, but there are still plenty of people watching in non-traditional ways and ABC doesn’t have the guts to experiment with ways to hold onto that audience. They have alienated millions of once loyal fans in their race to the bottom, the race to produce the cheapest shows possible, audience be damned.

David Fumero, my longest lasting crush, as Cristian Vega

Soaps are expensive, so it’s a risk for executives to go out on a limb and find ways to save them. It isn’t a risk to cancel them and replace them with dopey talk shows that can be produced at a fraction of the cost. That they get a fraction of the audience is immaterial to them. They’d rather fail with a cheap cooking show than an expensive soap.

A commentator on Huffington Post, Epiphany2b, said it best: “The problem they don’t seem to get is that eventually the cheapness of the final [product] (cheap in many ways) is going to send viewers back to books or watching series reruns on their computers, their advertisin­g dollars will fall, since they are based on viewership­, and their profits will tank. Eventually there will be no need for people to pay for cable or satellite connection­s, because there is nothing worth watching, and they will have destroyed the industry.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Epiphany2b/one-life-to-live-series-finale_n_1205273_128751595.htm

Todd and Blair (Roger Howarth and Kassie DePaiva) have been on and off again for about 20 years

 

But they don’t care about the future. They are only thinking about short term business decisions that are decimating the cultural landscape of the United States. Now standing up for soap operas might seem frivolous, but scraping a 43-year institution before trying radically innovative ways to save it is abominably short sighted. But these execs don’t care about soaps and have been trying to get rid of them for years. In the recent past we’ve seen All My Children, As the World Turns, and Guiding Light, which has been broadcast since 1937, get killed off unceremoniously. And now One Life to Live joins them. Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, The Young and the Restless, and The Bold and the Beautiful are the only ones left and the clock is ticking for them. We’re going to be left with television filled with Kardashian, Jerry Springer, and Jersey Shore knock-offs.

Look, I get it. Everything has to come to an end some time and 43 years is a pretty good run. That, however, doesn’t make me any happier. I grew up with and have lived with these characters my entire life and I want to continue checking in on them. I want to see Viki and Clint finally get married. I want Jessica to finally find happiness. I have been loving the addition of the Patels, an Indian family who have turned out to be great fun. I want to see where life takes Starr, to see if Todd finally gets his comeuppance, and figure out how Allison got her mitts on Victor in the last episode! Roxy has more clichés to mangle, the Ford brothers have more shirts to take off, and the Vega brothers need to find love too. (I don’t buy Cristian’s romance in Spain.) There is still so much storytelling to do here. Let’s get One Life to Live back in some way, if only to get the hunky Ford brothers back.

How could anyone cancel a show with this much wholesome goodness in it?

 

Here are some of my favorite moments from One Life to Live over the years:

The famous exploding wedding cake! Hilarious:

Marty accuses Rev. Andrew Carpenter of making advances towards teen boys in his congregation. Billy has to set the record straight and come out to his parents and tell them Andrew was only counseling him:

Asa, who usually loves his daughter-in-law Viki, gives her a piece of his mind when he thinks she cheated on his son. “Now you listen to me, soon to be ex-daughter-in-law…” Great scene:

Gabrielle and Brenda get into it:

A compilation of Nora and Lindsay’s bad blood:

Cristian catches Oliver kissing Kyle:

One of the funniest moments of the show was when Roxy, distraught over the impending cancellation of the soap within a soap, Fraternity Row, faints and wakes up as the show’s main character, Lorraine. They do a great job of ribbing the soap genre, reminding us that no matter how serious it might have seemed, they were always winking at us:

And no retrospective of the best of One Life to Live would be complete without a confrontation between Viki and Dorian. “Any resemblance between you and a human being is purely accidental.” Ha!:

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Movies That Could Make Me Hate Movies

I don’t walk out of movies. Nor do I start one at home and throw in the towel before the end, no matter how worthless, no matter how bad.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a fact. I don’t understand my fidelity to finishing even the trashiest garbage, but there is something about leaving a theater or turning off a DVD that makes my skin crawl. It just feels wrong, like shooting kittens or mugging little old ladies. I walked out of a movie once at the urging of a friend and I’ve regretted it ever since. Yes, the movie was rotten (and no I have never gone back and finished it), but once I left I felt like it was an act of moral cowardice. Not quite on the level of Red Badge of Courage, but something along those lines.

Thanks to Thomas Pynchon’s last book I have finally given up this personal obligation to finish with books. Somehow I came to the conclusion that if I wasn’t enjoying what I was reading and not getting anything meaningful out of it, I could put the book down and move on to something else. No sense in wasting countless hours indulging Pynchon in his nonsensical garbage.

Why can’t I do the same for movies? Of course the time commitment is much less, but I have been frustrated, angered, and made miserable by countless movies. Why is it OK to be tortured for two hours? Why put up with any misery even if it’s only two hours worth?

I’m beginning to suspect my movie love is obsessive. I feel the need to see everything (except The Human Centipede – I’m doing just fine without that) and part of seeing everything is seeing all of everything – warts and all. How can I tell what was wrong with a movie if I don’t see all of it? Or how do I know there won’t be something worth seeing in the last reel?

So I compiled at list of movies that have caused me the most displeasure. I won’t go so far as to say these are the worst movies ever made since I haven’t seen everything, especially largely reviled movies like Frozen Assets and Ishtar (and Jerry Lewis still won’t let me see The Day the Clown Cried). Plus I’m largely giving a pass to low budget pieces of crap.  It’s easy to rag on incompetence. I prefer to highlight the worst movie made by supposedly competent filmmakers. Those who made Manos: Hands of Fate, Black Ninja, or Monster a Go-Go didn’t have a basic understanding of the world around them or the people in it, let alone basic cinematic grammar and ragging on them would be like picking on the retarded girl in the playground.

So here is a collection of movies that I wish I had been able to walk out on, movies that have no redeeming qualities, movies that were conceived, developed, filmed, edited, and screened with no vision, creativity, or aesthetic. They are, in a word, excrement.

In no particular order:

Zardoz (1974) Dir./Wr. John Boorman

In fairness to writer, director, and producer John Boorman, he did have a vision with this one, though it was so misguided I can’t believe no one pulled him aside and asked what the deal was with the giant flying head that vomits guns. This is one of those post-apocalyptic pretensions that trick filmmakers into believing they are saying something profound about contemporary society. There’s a lot of goofiness about immortality, mind control, and Sean Connery dressed in … well, I’m not sure what he’s dressed in, but it surely wasn’t flattering. If you’ve never suffered though this one, here’s a trailer:

I hope that doesn’t delude you into thinking it will be a campy good time. It isn’t. It’s deadly dull, taking all the worst of Planet of the Apes and mashing it up with the worst of 2001. The trailer is incomprehensible and the movie doesn’t clear much up.

The Scarlet Letter (1995) Dir. Roland Joffe, Wr. Douglas Day Stewart

Watching this incarnation of The Scarlet Letter I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t a colossal joke. It seems more like the product of a movie that’s satirizing the way Hollywood bastardizes art for commercial success, like Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty, than an actual movie that people thought was a good idea. I kept waiting for the camera to swing around and catch the battles behind the scenes to maintain some fidelity to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. But that never happens and Joffe packs in one embarrassment after another: Indian attacks, witch trials, anachronistic feminism, and, worst of all, Rev. Dimsdale’s heroism and even a happy ending! Blech.

Hollywood: Making Complex, Thoughtful Literature Shallow and Titillating Since 1915

Just because they say it is “freely adapted” from the novel doesn’t excuse the corrupt process that brought this monstrosity into being. Here’s an idea: If you don’t like the story of one of the greatest American novels ever written, don’t use it as the basis for your movie. Make up an original story. But would that have been too hard? I guess so. While they’re at it they should re-do The Great Gatsby and instead of that downer ending, why not let Jay and Daisy live happily ever after? Or they could “re-imagine” Moby-Dick where Ahab learns the evils of whaling and teams up with his new pal Moby to battle an evil whaling conglomerate in the style of Flipper or Free Willy.

Movers and Shakers (1985) Dir. William Asher, Wr. Charles Grodin

So bad I couldn't even find a decent picture or video clip for it.

Sometimes you see a bad movie and think that it must have looked like a good idea on paper, but somewhere along the production line it fell apart. I can’t imagine how Movers and Shakers looked good on paper or any other material. Charles Grodin, often a very funny actor, wrote the abysmally unfunny screenplay about a studio executive (Walter Matthau) who makes a promise on his best friend’s death bed that he will make a movie out of his favorite book: a how-to sex manual. Matthau spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out how to make the movie. Unfortunately it is painfully unfunny. Steve Martin pops in for a misguided cameo as an aging screen idol. He’s not believable or funny. (And Penny Marshall is his girlfriend?!) Nothing in the movie is remotely funny. It’s just dull, dull, dull, which is strange with so much good talent attached. Gilda Radner is in it for God’s sake! You know it sucks when Gilda Radner can’t make me laugh.

This material could only have been funny if it was grounded in real life, if we believe that there actually is a movie they could make, no matter how bad it would be. How about a promise to re-make a Swedish sex film? That could have been funny. Or how about making The Scarlet Letter with a happy ending … oh, wait.

Jud Süss (1940) Dir. Veit Harlan, Wr. Veit Harlan and E. W. Möller

OK, this is a virulently anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda piece, so was I even expecting to like it? Originally I would have said no, but a friend of mine urged me to see it. It is, he insisted, a good movie if you can get past the anti-Jewish stuff. I figured he must have seen something worthwhile in it so I checked it out. I’m now convinced my friend stands as another exhibit in the case against film school. He spent too much time there looking at pretty pictures and not learning about life. For some reason he thinks it’s possible to separate the anti-Semitic text from the images.

I’ve been lenient on lots of movies for racism. You have to judge them by the time they were made, so it isn’t fair to condemn Gone with the Wind for its racist depictions of blacks. But the difference is Gone with the Wind could have existed without those characters. Jud Süss cannot exist without the conniving, money grubbing Jew manipulating the state for his and his peoples’ own needs at the expense of defenseless gentiles.  Jud Süss argues a point that ultimately justified the Holocaust for many Germans. I can’t get excited about that. Oh, and objectively speaking, even if I was able to ignore the hooked noses and raping of the pure gentile girl, it’s still a shockingly boring movie. Just look at this clip. It should be filled with tension: a girl appealing to the Jewish finance minister for the life of her husband, but he only has one thing on his mind. It’s paced at about the same clip as my 94-year-old grandmother’s stories about spilling tea on Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Happening (2008) Dir/Wr. M. Night Shyamalan

I’ve always like Mark Wahlberg so it hurts me to say he delivers one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture in this clunker. I’ve never, however, liked M. Night Shyamalan so I feel justified laying the blame for Wahlberg’s terrible performance at his feet. It was the director’s job to curb Wahlberg’s habit of ending every statement with a question mark, but for some reason the hack Shyamalan just patted him on the back and moved on. Shyamalan got lucky with The Sixth Sense, a pretty bad movie that relies on a gimmick to impress people. And Shyamalan has made one piece of trash after another since then, making The Sixth Sense look more and more like Casablanca. As much as I hated The Last Airbender, even that was a step up from the utter failure that was The Happening. The set up has possibilities but, as usual, Shyamalan, fumbles them. Large groups of people begin killing themselves along the eastern seaboard. Are terrorists releasing toxins in the air that make people kill themselves? Of course not! It’s something much sillier than that. RiffTrax, Mystery Science Theater 3000 in their new form, lampooned the film brilliantly in this clip:

Well, it wasn’t really fair. I mean Wahlberg actually says to himself, “Be scientific, douchebag.”  It’s as if Shyamalan wrote the gags for them. (Though it isn’t as bad as my favorite Shyamalan example of bad writing. From The Last Airbender: “We have to show them we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.” Yeah, OK.) Can we stop pretending that this guy ever had any talent?

The Sting, Part II (1983) Dir. Jeremy Kagan, Wr. David S. Ward

You know you’re in trouble when the director of a sequel goes to great pains to assure everyone that his movie isn’t really a sequel. Instead it’s “inspired by and a continuation of” the first, highly successful film. How something can be inspired by and a continuation of a film without being a sequel isn’t all that clear, but the studio had to know they had a momentous flop on their hands. Mac Davis, whoever that is, just can’t fill Robert Redford’s shoes. And I love Jackie Gleason, but he should have known better when he was offered a role originated by Paul Newman.

Not even the poster is all that interesting

And this is where the producers get tricky. They knew Davis and Gleason weren’t exactly Redford and Newman so they slightly changed their names and said, “Ta-dah! They’re not really playing the same parts. It’s completely different … but the same.”

I think The Sting is a fine movie, but years of far better grifter movies have diminished its stature. That said, The Sting Part II is rotten, lifeless, devoid of any creative instincts that weren’t plundered from another source, that watching it makes The Sting look like the classic everyone seems to think it is. I wish I could find a clip of the movie somewhere so you can see for yourself how everyone is wooden, especially Terri Garr putting on a crummy French accent. I guess the incompetence of the accent was supposed to be funny but, like everything else in the movie, it just comes off as incompetent.

The Haunted Mansion (2003) Dir. Rob Minkoff, Wr. David Berenbaum

Eddie Murphy in a haunted house could have been funny in 1983, not 2003.

It’s sad when movies don’t fulfill their genre requirements. When romances aren’t romantic. When thrillers aren’t thrilling. When dramas aren’t dramatic. They’re all sad. But there is nothing sadder than a comedy that isn’t funny. I grow increasingly embarrassed when someone is trying ever so hard to be funny, but ends up being as funny as a stroke. There are few comedies I’ve seen that are as wretchedly unfunnny as The Haunted Mansion, a crude attempt to cash in on the success of another film based on a Disneyland attraction, The Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Haunted Mansion has long been one of the most popular attractions at Disneyland. As a child I always looked forward to the stretching room, the ballroom filled with dancing ghosts, and the crowded cemetery. I had no way of knowing that crass studio executives would get their hands on some of these beloved scenes and try to pervert them into a cash cow movie franchise.

I don’t have a problem with them making it into a movie, so long as the movie isn’t terrible. But all they saw were the dollar signs of Johnny Depp’s franchise and didn’t want to be bothered with the hard work of developing a creative, funny script. They rushed out a bore of a script filled with punchlines that wouldn’t make a first grader laugh. To turn a disaster into a catastrophe, they then cast Eddie Murphy in the lead. Now I love a lot of what Murphy has done in the past, but he hasn’t been on his game in years (decades maybe). I would say that casting Murphy in the part is a clever attempt to subvert the old movies where black actors are comically afraid of ghosts (“Feets don’t fail me now!”), but I doubt that much though went into it. Murphy is just as terrible as the written material and what we end up with is a mess that Murphy, Wallace Shawn, Terrence Stamp, and everyone else associated with it are probably more than happy to pretend never happened.

And now we learn that Guillermo Del Toro is out to remake the movie and, hopefully, erase the memory of the terrible film that preceded it.

If all movies were as bad as these seven I would have renounced film and buried my nose in books years ago. Luckily they aren’t. What are some of your cinematic horror stories? I’d love to hear about the movies you hate with a passion.

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Time Keeps on Slippin’, Slippin’, Slippin’, Into the Future: Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” at LACMA

Big Ben makes several prominent appearances in "The Clock." The star?

Thursday afternoon I strolled into the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for an event. There aren’t many movies I consider an event, but Christian Marclay’s The Clock certainly qualifies. This is the kind of movie to which people bring pillows and picnic lunches and within a two or three radius of seats small groups of strangers can socialize and bond over the experience. The Clock is a 24 hour film that edits together scenes from hundreds of movies that have one thing in common: time. Or, more precisely, the presence of a time telling device.

The Clock is the only movie I know of in which you don’t have to check your watch. You always know what time it is because Marclay scrupulously culled scenes from the movies (and some television) in which a clock or watch or even a sundial are shown. Or maybe someone just tells another character what time it is. The film is meant to be played synchronized with the actual time in the theater so there is no beginning or end, just a progression of scenes where characters ask the time or check a watch or interact with a clock looming behind them.

There’s a certain giddiness you feel when watching the movie. I giggled at some of the editing tricks. Marclay edits together some footage to make it appear characters from different movies (often from different decades) interact and respond to each other. That isn’t a terribly difficult or creative maneuver, but it produced some worthy chuckles when Myrna Loy says something and Will Smith responds. What is even more impressive and makes anyone paying attention smile (in the beginning anyway) is the careful attention Marclay paid to getting the time right.

It’s remarkable how precise Marclay is. Whenever I decided to check the accuracy of the movie’s time, it was right on the button. If a character said it’s 10:31, I’d check my watch and it was 10:31. Some of the biggest laughs come when a clock is off, sometimes by several hours. After sometimes a few minutes of dialogue, as we become increasingly agitated by the apparent error, one of the characters will check his watch and then more the hands of the clock to the correct time: 6:07. Everyone laughs, the nonsensical tension relieved. And that is what passes for tension. Will Marclay get it right or will he slip up?

Often the time is prominently displayed....

Sometimes the clock is prominently displayed....

This is fun for a while, but after a few hours I settled down and just watched time move on. It’s amazing how omnipresent time is not just in movies, but in our lives. How it dictates where we are or what we do. Of course we don’t have to watch a 24 hour movie to get that, but there isn’t another experience that highlights this fact so pointedly. Also I don’t think the movie is intended to be watched in its entirety. This, I believe, was a passion project for Marclay and he intended it for everyone so he structured it in such a way that you can file in and out whenever you want, without fear of missing anything.

Of course I didn’t stay for the entire 24 hours, though I know there were several people there who intended to do so. (I don’t know if they succeeded.) I did, however, make it through 14 hours – an all night ordeal. I got there at 4:45 in the afternoon and left at 6:45 in the morning. (You don’t need to ask. Yes, I’m a bit loony.)

I was stunned at how many people showed up. The theater was nearly full when I got there and by 7 the theater was packed with a line around the building. It stayed packed until sometime after 12 when a slow but steady stream of people left. By two or three there were only about 50 people left, some awkwardly splayed out in those small, uncomfortable seats trying to get some sleep. In the morning more people showed up again, some of which left the night before, went home to get some sleep and came back.

.... and other times it's hovering in the background.

This mash up of unrelated movie clips should have been a bore, but hardcore movie lovers are entranced by it. You never know what’s coming next. One moment we will be seeing something from Halloween III and the next we see something from 8 ½. From The Awful Truth to Cocktail. From Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to In the Mood for Love. From Suspiria to I Am Legend. From Julie and Julia to Twin Peaks. From Murder on the Orient Express to Matlock. From Mrs. Miniver to Donnie Darko. All with one thing in common: making us hyper-aware of time.

This is something movies are meant to avoid. We aren’t supposed to care what time it is in a movie. We’re meant to forget and get caught up in the artificial world and its manipulation of time to suit its story. There are a few of scenes that Marclay reedits to actual time – so, for instance, if Steve McQueen is waiting for a suspect at the airport for 45 minutes, we periodically check in over that period of time, a scene that happens in about 30 second in Bullitt.

There is a structural irony to The Clock that I found delicious. On the one hand it is a series of short scenes, many no longer than a few second, none longer than a few minutes. This structure is well-suited to a populace with a short attention span. On the other hand it last 24 hours, a length of time that tax even the most attentive.

Checking watches: a common sight in "The Clock"

I’ve seen it suggested that someone should create a phone app that would play the movie on a constant loop under the clock of your phone. That sounds like a great idea (despite the legal and technical issues), but I think it would take away from the experience of the film. Watching a clip on your phone of on You Tube isn’t the same experience as seeing it with a large group of people in a theater. While The Clock succeeds in making its point about the oppressive presence of time, it also makes a stronger point about how much richer a cinematic experience is with a crowd. Watching a few of the clips from The Clock on You Tube doesn’t have the same impact as seeing it with a crowd of people laughing and cheering. The Clock shouldn’t be watched at home on DVD (the horror). It needs people and perfect synchronization. Otherwise it’s just another mash up of movie clips. (But if curiosity is killing you, you can see a five minute clip here.)

Yes, it’s a conceit, but it’s an ambitious conceit that has the potential to get people excited about movies again. Some call it a masterpiece, but I suggest it’s a masterpiece of ambition and obsession. What balls it takes to make a 24-hour movie and expect people to watch it. And then they do! Marclay has to get credit for just for that feat, but that it also turns out to be eminently watchable makes it closer to a masterpiece than I am willing to concede at this point.

Time: the real star of the film.

(Note: The Clock tends to be screened at museums and galleries, but I have no idea if there are any plans to show it anywhere in the near future. LACMA owns a permanent copy and this was their second screening, so hopefully Los Angeles will get another chance to see it and I’ll get a chance to see the daytime footage. I’ve checked online for screenings in other cities, but I can’t find anything. If anyone knows of an upcoming screening, please let us know.)

Alain de Botton did a nice piece on The Clock for BBC2. You can see it here.

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1940 Countdown

As part of my ongoing traipse through cinemas history I am finalizing the essays for the countdown of the best movies and best performances of 1940. I will post the first on Saturday and will get through the year faster than I have previous series. Instead of taking a month and a half, I don’t expect it to take more than three weeks. (Oh the joys of planning ahead…) I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts, reactions, and their favorite films of 1940. If you aren’t a huge movie nerd like me and aren’t sure what came out that year, check out the movies of 1940 article at Wikipedia.

And one more thing: yes the weekly movie diary will continue, but I was so indifferent to everything released this week that I didn’t even bother going to the movies. Hopefully next week will be a bit more promising.

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The Real World and My Best and Worst Lists of 2010

*I wrote this yesterday morning when NPR was reporting Rep. Giffords had died.  What it has to do with a top ten list, I don’t know, but I was in the mood to vent.

On the disturbing and  tragic weekend when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has been shot, several more wounded, and six others killed (including a federal judge and a nine year old girl just out to see democracy in action) in Tucson it seems fairly frivolous to publish a post celebrating my favorites of 2010. As this country drifts towards a third world economic and political system championed by blind ideologues on the Right, I feel like I need to justify my passion for movies and storytelling, though I really shouldn’t have to.  Most of my regular readers understand the power and benefit of storytellers inspiring our collective imaginations.  They remind us of the possibilities we had forgotten, the goals that fell by the wayside, and the empathy we so desperately need today.

I don’t know what motivated the shooting yesterday morning, though there are plenty of political commentators and buffoons who have been calling for violence both directly and indirectly for years now.  They suggest how the wonder of storytelling can be turned against us by weaving fantastic and paranoid tales for their own political gain.  They’ve convinced many people that Obama is a Muslim Manchurian candidate sent to subvert our country with Communistic programs.  That Obama is neither Muslim nor anywhere near is Communist is immaterial to them.  It helps further their agenda.

Whether Jared Loughner was inspired by Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, or Sarah Palin (if your “crosshairs” map had nothing to do with guns, why did you take it down?) is almost irrelevant because they have been spearheading our descent into Banana Republicanism for years: non-regulated markets, limited social services, low taxes (especially on the wealthy), a weak educational system, and, not coincidentally, easy access to guns.  I’ve always wondered why the people who think these things are so wonderful don’t go live someplace that already has them in place, like Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and parts of Colombia.  Stays in those places would give them a taste of what’s to come here should they have their way.

Luckily there are still enough people who value truth, fact, and honesty that are willing to stand up and expose their misuse of data, twisting of facts, and omissions of truths.  Their plan to dismantle civilization ushering in a new Dark Age under the supervision of Ayn Rand’s soulless “philosophy” will not go as expected.  And, of course, one of the best ways to dilute this myopic Constitutional fanaticism and laissez-faire fetishism is to tell stories that touch people’s souls.  Maybe if more Tea Partiers saw more of the movies on the list below (and sought to understand them), they would be a little less likely to paint everyone who doesn’t agree with them or who looks different from them with the same dismissive and dehumanizing brush.  Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Now that I’ve made a “serious” point, I don’t feel quite so guilty about my focus on movies.  Getting back to the subject at hand, here is my list of favorite movies that were released in 2010.  I see these movies as everything that is right in our culture today, as opposed to the dishonest rhetoric like hateful political talk that goes on day and night or the absurdly ahistorical Kennedy miniseries that the History Channel has finally declined to air because, from what we see in the script, it amounts to little more than a right-wing character assassination of Jack Kennedy.  But let’s move on from this political diatribe.  Focus, Jason, focus.

This list is partial and temporary.  I loved all the movies on it, but there are still several I haven’t seen like Mother and Child, Please Give, Biutiful, I Love You Philip Morris, Godard’s Socialism, among others.  (In fact, looking at a list of releases for 2010, it’s amazing how many of them I haven’t seen considering all the time I spent at the movies.)  And this doesn’t even include foreign titles that won’t make it to us until later this year.  So think of this as a tentative list of the best, subject to many changes by the time I do this officially when I finally get here on my annual countdowns.

1. Toy Story 3

2. Another Year

3 Mother*

4. Carlos

5. I Am Love*

6. Rabbit Hole

7.127 Hours

8. Restrepo

9. The Social Network

10. Vincere*

* These are actually 2009 releases, but we didn’t see them in theaters until 2010 here in the U.S.

Best Actress: Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Best Actor: Edgar Ramírez (Carlos)

Best Supporting Actress: Olivia Williams (Ghost Writer)

Best Supporting Actor: Ciarán Hinds (Life during Wartime)

Yes the best movie of the year is Toy Story 3.  I don’t know how that gels with those commentators who called me heartless or some other such nonsense for not liking True Grit.

Natalie Portman in "Black Swan"

Natalie Portman was stunning in Black Swan and all indications are she will get an Oscar for it.  Other close contenders were Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Vincere), Hye-ja Kim (Mother), Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Lesley Manville (Another Year), Tilda Swinton (I Am Love), Rachel Weisz (Agora), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Naomi Watts (Fair Game), and Isabelle Hupert (White Material).

Edgar Ramirez as Carlos the Jackal

Edgar Ramírez will not be eligible for an Oscar because of the Academy’s increasingly archaic rules, but he gives one of the most complete performances of the year in Carlos.  Other close contenders are James Franco (127 Hours, a movie he essentially carried by himself), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole), Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine), Sean Penn (Fair Game), George Clooney (The American), Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter), Andrew Garfield (Never Let Me Go), and Jim Broadbent (Another Year).

Olivia Williams (with Tom Wilkerson) in "The Ghost Writer"

For best supporting actress I chose Olivia Williams for a mysterious and layered performance in Roman Polanski’s political thriller The Ghost Writer.  Nods should also go to Amy Adams (The Fighter), Diane Wiest (Rabbit Hole), Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech), Kiera Knightley (Never Let Me Go), Alba Rohrwacher (I Am Love), Ruth Sheen (Another Year), and Allison Janney (Life during Wartime) *Update (Jan. 13): I forgot to include Barbara Hershey in Black Swan.

Ciaran Hinds in "Life during Wartime"

Ciarán Hinds, in an overlooked performance from an admittedly  pretty bad movie, is my best supporting actor.  How many people can make a child molester so compelling without being exploitative?  (Oh yeah, the last guy to play the part, Dylan Baker in 1998’s Happiness.)  Other close contenders are Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole), Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), Christian Bale (The Fighter), Max Minghella (Agora), Nicholas Duvauchelle (White Material), and Flavio Parenti (I Am Love)  *Update (Jan. 13):  How could I have forgotten the wonderful work of Armie Hammer as the Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network?*

The worst picture I saw in 2010 was The Last Airbender, an especially tedious and cynical exercise.  It wasn’t even so bad that it was funny.  It was just plain terrible.  It was made even worse when I sat down and watched the animated series and I found that M. Night failed to capture any of the humor of the characters.  Everything was so unnecessarily dark.  The creators of the show ought to be annoyed while they spend all the money.  Runners-up for the worst are Little Fockers, Paranormal Activity 2, Tron: Legacy, Burlesque, Greenberg, Micmacs, Robin Hood, and Faster.

"The Last Airbender": They don't come any stinkier

Faster also ends up as one of the most disappointing because of Dwayne Johnson’s failed attempt to get back into action, the place he should have been all along.  He looked uncomfortable in the film, like he didn’t know the cameras were running.  If he’s going to be in something this stinky he should at least throw us a bone and spend more time with less clothes on.  I have scientifically worked it out and if he had been (at least) shirtless in 65% of the movie, it would have been 84% more bearable.  (It would have still been bad, but an enjoyable bad — like eating bad blueberry pie.  No matter how bad, it is, after all, still blueberry pie.)

Other disappointments were Hereafter, Alice in Wonderland, Shutter Island, The Town, Get Low, Splice, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, Howl, and Greenberg.

And there have been a slew of overrated pictures: Winter’s Bone, Exit through the Gift Shop, Greenberg, The Kids Are All Right, True Grit, White Material, and Waiting for ‘Superman’.

All in all it was an interesting year of movie-going, if not exactly great.  There was a decent action movie (Inception), a couple of pretty good romantic comedies, which is quite a feat for this now barren genre (Letters to Juliet and How Do You Know), a charmingly goofy Christmas horror/thriller from Finland’s (Rare Exports), and a few shockingly good remakes (The Karate Kid, Let Me In, and The Crazies ).

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Movie Critics Still Matter … Unless Michele Willens Gets Her Wish

I try not to be a jerk when criticizing the work of other people, but sometimes I read things that are so silly, so obviously wrong-headed, they cry out for a dressing down.  Now that we are in this wonderful world of the World Wide Web, where any schmuck like me has a voice, I can vent against the pseudo-intellectual silliness that came from a post over at the Huffington Post several days ago.  Playwright Michele Willens has taken aim at movie critics daring to express opinions with which “normal” people (as she terms it) might not agree.

I’m not sure who anointed Ms. Willens the spokesperson of normal people, nor does she bother to explain who she means when using it.  Can a normal person have a college degree?  Postgrad?  Is there a salary cap?

In her piece “Face It: Critics Have Lost Their Movie Memory,” Willens attacks critics for not reflecting what she perceives as the average movie goers thoughts and expectations.

Those pernicious Top Ten lists are sprouting up and one can’t help feeling these faux intellectuals are trying to prove not only that they know what is really good, but that millions of people who felt otherwise must be wrong.

I’m sorry, but aren’t critics supposed to tell us what is really good.  I think that’s part of their job description.  But where does she get the idea that critics – any critics – aren’t aware that their judgments are purely subjective?  Even the most pretentious movie critics are expressing opinions.  No one is issuing ironclad legal edicts; they aren’t delivering their reviews, set in stone tablets, from Mount Sinai.

No one is wrong in liking or disliking a movie.  Why is it that so many ostensibly educated people have, since the dawn of cultural criticism, interpreted a critics disdain for something they love as an attack on their intellectual capacity?  When did educated people lose their intellectual courage and self-esteem?  Critics are here to open conversation, to suggest ways of interpreting, and opening up opportunities for lesser known movies (or books or theater or opera or any other art form).  Though there are probably plenty of film snobs, who takes them seriously except other snobs?  They aren’t writing for you or me anyway.

One strategy of her attack is to accuse critics of being inconsistent.  (Well who isn’t?)  She wonders why some movies she thinks should be on top ten lists aren’t:

Furthermore, don’t they read their own reviews? Remember when The Social Network opened long ago? As in six weeks ago? [It actually opened more than ten weeks ago, but what’s a month between friends.] Well, that is apparently a long time in Movie Critic memory and so far, I am seeing that 100%- positively reviewed film on few if any lists. This means what? That the critics themselves were wrong in their rapturous critiques, that it was before films could be be [sic] taken seriously, or that it was just too damn enjoyable to be deigned award-worthy?

First off, just because a critic writes a glowing review doesn’t mean it will automatically appear on a top ten list.  They see many more movies than Ms. Willens or myself.  If a critic liked or even loved The Social Network and it doesn’t appear on their year-end top ten list, why not chalk that up to the fact they saw at least ten better movies?  Why assume a plot against entertainment?

Willens, however, loses a boatload of credibility here because The Social Network is on tons of lists.  One look at Metacritic and we see they found it on at least 43 lists, including 12 who placed it in the top spot.  She complains about her perception that The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech, both, she says, received enthusiastic reviews on their release but are absent on top ten lists.  A little checking (and in this day of Google it seems strange that she wouldn’t bother to do so before writing something for the public to read) would have revealed The Kids Are All Right is on at least 17 lists and The King’s Speech shows up on seven.

The idea that smarter-than-thou-critics fiendishly shape their lists to make the rest of us feel inferior is tiresome.  Willens dusts off this old chestnut:

…reviewers also tend to show off their international leanings at this time, throwing out titles no one has heard of.

It almost makes you want to throw in the towel on the article, right?  Especially since just a few paragraphs later she completely contradicts herself by saying:

I subscribe to the idea that a critic can and should point us to original, less noticeable works.

Wait…what?  Critics are being show-offs if they add foreign titles few people have heard of, but they should highlight them at the same time?  How?  Isn’t a year end top ten list, a list that rightly or wrongly, gets more attention than a regular review, be the perfect place to point us to these original and less noticeable works?  But it gets worse:

Critics are often guilty of falling under the spell of a particular filmmaker,say Woody Allen in his heyday and now, Danny Boyle, who can seemingly do no wrong in their eyes. Hey, I love James Franco [don’t we all?], but you find someone who thought 127 Hours was either entertaining, (even omitting the cutting-off-his-arm segment) suspenseful, or anything but simultaneously jumpy and lazy.

Here we go.  Yes, there is a huge conspiracy of film critics to make people watch and like – and they have to like at all costs! – Woody Allen movies.  I wish Ms. Willens would do the community of critics she is maligning by pointing out particular cases.  “Often” means about as little as “sources say.”  (Judith Miller anyone?)  I can qualify any broad, unsubstantiated claim with “often.”  Tell me specifically who thinks Danny Boyle can do no wrong.

And I can point to several people, including myself, who thought 127 Hours was supremely entertaining.  I’ve seen it twice now and was riveted from beginning to end both times.  That doesn’t mean I’m a Danny Boyle sycophant.  I hated Slumdog Millionaire with a passion.   Not that I am one of the pernicious, anti-normal people critics she’s chiding for their audacity to put movies she never heard of on their lists.

Sure critics can fall into a groupthink mentality, but we all can.  Good ones avoid it.  That is why we can’t treat critics like interchangeable clogs whose opinions all carry the same value ready to be tallied up on Rotten Tomatoes.  Critics are people just like the rest of us and the challenge is to find critics whose opinions we value.  Maybe if Ms. Willens spent time actually reading the critics she is attacking (which I would venture to guess she doesn’t), instead of broad-brushing critics based on a limited number of top ten lists, she would recognize the value of a marketplace of ideas about movies.  Instead she wants critics to follow the example of the Academy, which opened up ten best picture nomination slots.

The motive is not so admirable: Academy folks — often influenced by these last minute year-end lists — are simply trying to get tuned out viewers to tune back in. Critics should get the same message.

If we want to talk about the dumbing down of America, here is a prime example of it.  I’m not afraid of the effects of Jersey Shore or Bridalplasty.  There always have been and always will be dumb people in the world and they need something to watch too.  I don’t think these shows make smart people any dumber (assuming they even bother to watch them).  I am afraid, however, of well-meaning, educated people like Ms. Willens who want smart people to tone it down so we don’t make all those “normal” people feel left out.  She’s ultimately advocating that a critic put aside his or her reaction to a movie because it might not gel with public opinion.  I can’t think of anything more pernicious, anti-intellectual, unfair to movies and those who love them, more deadly to the future of film criticism, or (not to be histrionic) fascistic than this cynical strategy.  We’ve settled for morally inoffensive politicians; I don’t want that in my critics too.

I wish I could say the “don’t trust the experts” movement was confined to the fringes, but it is here with us as strong as ever, seeping into movie criticism.  Ms. Willens’ unfortunate view is cousin to the wacky anti-Darwinists, corporate-bought climate change deniers, Texas textbook commissions who want to write multiculturalism out of history, and anti-vaccination loons.  I expect these things from uneducated and insecure wack jobs who feel experts, people who have studied a subject their entire lives, are so educated that they are out of touch.  They are simply elitist eggheads who have nothing of value to offer the rest of us.  That’s a dangerous path to go down.

Movies are here to entertain and enlighten, but we don’t all agree on which ones do them the best.  Nothing is more enjoyable to me than debating a movie with someone just as passionate as I am.  Reading reviews of people who are smarter and better writers than me, doesn’t make me feel inadequate.  It enlivens me.  Reading top-notch critics like Joe Morgenstern, Manohla Dargis, Bob Mondello, A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Stephanie Zacharek, David Denby, Molly Haskell, Anthony Lane, and Andrew O’Heheir reminds me that thought isn’t dead; that there are people out there buffering against the dumbing down of our already pretty dumb country.  Why is that a bad thing?  Only by celebrating divergent viewpoints from the smartest among us, even those sharper and more perceptive than us, will film criticism have a relevant future.

But in Ms. Willens’ perfect world critics would have finger-in-the-wind opinions, subject to the fickle fluctuations of box-office receipts.  She probably didn’t think the implications of this through before she hit the send button, but if critics followed her advice Jackass 3D would top many best of 2010 lists.

What’s worse is she is perpetuating (or trying to anyway) the same cultural blackmail she’s accusing critics of.  In her eyes they are a group of elitist snobs showing off their smarty-pants cred with top ten lists stocked with movies to shame regular folk for not being smart enough to understand Wild Grass.  But she’s doing exactly the opposite, showing off her populist anti-intellectual cred.  She’s practically crying, “I’m no snob!  I’m just like y’all!” though she undercuts this by showing love for the indie-comedy Tiny Furniture, a movie – gasp! – no normal person has heard of!  Nothing elitist there, Ms. Willens.

I suggest that Ms. Willens and anyone else who might agree with her stop feeling insecure and actually start reading the work of film critics.  They don’t have to agree with them or change their opinions, but at the end of the year, when their top ten lists come out, they will at least have heard of most of the movies and may even understand why a particular critic included an obscure foreign film.  This isn’t about elitist vs. populism.  This is about a country open to new ideas and perspectives.  I would expect the writers on Huffington Post to celebrate diversity of opinion, not to quash it.

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