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Filmchat

Randy got me The Film Snob Dictionary for Christmas. That’s hilarious. He wins. It also reminds me of something . . . It’s that time again; time for the trimester report on the best films I saw during the last (approximately) 4-month period. I don’t think whittling things down to a top 10 has been this difficult since that very first summer (2004), when I watched 137 films. Since the end of August I’ve seen “only” 58, but statistically they’ve been rather good.

While I’ve occasionally been forced to dip into the 92-93% types to fill up the full ten, this time there are over a dozen in the high 90s alone, with several deserving entries in the 94-95% range which will simply have to be left out of the final count. Heartbreaking. On the positive side, I have begun a list (based on my record) of movies I’d like to own. Current most coveted is A Passage to India, chiefly because I’ve begun to look for it specifically every time I walk into a store that sells DVDs and I have yet to find it. Eventually I shall tire of this game and buy it online, but for now I’m enjoying the thrill of the chase.

I discovered an interesting anomaly between two of the films I watched last month (which I shall go ahead and note here, since neither is in the running for a top spot). Oliver! won the 1968 Oscar for Best Picture (rather undeservedly in my opinion, but the competition was thin) and is (to date) the last G-rated film to have carried off that award. I, for one, am sure that there are very good reasons for that, but anyway . . . The very next year, Best Picture went to Midnight Cowboy, the first (and only) X-rated film to win said award. That film, incidentally, I did feel to be most deserving of its recognition, chiefly thanks to its lead actors. I was horrified to discover that Best Actor that year went to John Wayne for True Grit. Dustin Hoffman was surely most grievously robbed, to say nothing of Jon Voight.

Yeah, okay. I’ll stop stalling. Let’s get to it:

Water

Chinatown

Gattaca

North by Northwest

Stranger Than Fiction

Tsotsi

Big Night

Dead Man Walking

Joyeux Noël

The Green Mile

I rather sorely neglected to discuss the films we saw at the Kilgore Film Festival, probably because Randy and I reviewed them all for the YellowJacket (a veritable tour de force it was). There were some really great ones . . . all of them actually, with the exception of Woody Allen’s boorish schtick. Water was indisputably the best (although my personal favorite was Wordplay, I have to say . . . more on that later). Incredibly moving, great cinematography and locations, magnificent performances and score, and the plot faked me out completely at least three times. I really need to check out the rest of Deepa Mehta’s elemental trilogy (Earth and Fire) one of these days.

Chinatown, North by Northwest, and Stranger Than Fiction, and Joyeux No�l I have discussed before. Chinatown is a seriously worthy noir film, which felt (to me, anyway) very much like a bridge between two very different eras of filmmaking. Alfred Hitchcock . . . one of his best . . . always worth a look. Stranger Than Fiction, the most charming, likeable 2006 release I’ve seen yet. I hope to see it snag some Oscar nominations. Joyeux No�l, I repeat, best Christmas movie I’ve ever seen. You have to get it and see it . . . and don’t tell me you can’t. My brother tells me he even found it in Guatemala.

I have now seen Gattaca probably half a dozen times, and my enjoyment grows with each viewing. Every time I watch it, I think it can’t be as good as I remember, and it’s always better. It represents a flawless marriage of several rather disparate concepts, producing a retro-futuristic blend of stylish mystery and drama. There is film noir, there is the genetic dystopia of Brave New World, there is more than a hint of Isaac Asimov’s fabulous robot mysteries . . . and so much more.

Tsotsi is a shocking story of unexpected redemption. I think I may have mentioned my affinity to the well-done redemption story once or twice before. This one was so excellent that it went directly onto that syllabus I was composing shortly thereafter, neatly saving me from having to insert a more controversial entry like Pulp Fiction or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Film Oscar last year, and it certainly had it coming.

Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile certainly don’t belong together, since they are almost nothing alike . . . but they both center around death row and feature a less than benevolent view of capital punishment. The former is a focused statement of that position, while the latter’s politics are more incidental to its story. But they’re both really good. I first saw Dead Man Walking in my Bible class during my senior year in high school, and at that time (perhaps not surprisingly) it failed to make the same impression as it did when I rewatched it last semester. In fact, I barely remembered having seen it. Not so this time. Very impacting.

The Green Mile I saw my freshman year of college, and I’ve had the urge to rewatch it several times since. I finally sat down and did it while packing to return to Texas. The deliberate, measured way in which this great movie sets up its story and characters before allowing them to unfold their little drama before us is truly impressive. This film is almost as good as its more grounded cousin (by the same author and the same director, and with some similar elements), The Shawshank Redemption.

I have saved the most exhilirating for last: Big Night, the story of two brothers (played by the hilarious and gifted Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, who also directs) whose newly opened Italian restaurant is floundering because their customers are gastronomic philistines. A friend (and rival) with a highly successful set-up just down the road offers them one last chance to keep the place open: the attendance of a big-name celebrity at a no-holds-barred feast to be prepared by them and served at their restaurant, with full press coverage.

Big Night is an absolute joy to watch from first to last. Every performance, every scene, is a priceless gem. I didn’t think a “food movie” could ever top Babette’s Feast (another favorite), but this one does. There are so many magnificent moments leading up to the title event, as Primo (Shalhoub) berates his ignorant patrons and clumsily woos the local florist and Segundo (Tucci) juggles two very different women (representative of his cultural confusion), a steady relationship with an adoring American girl who wants him to settle down with her, and a passionate, illicit affair with an Italian mistress who calls him back to his roots and threatens his plans for stability.

But once the festivities begin, the film truly (and I mean truly) pulls out all the stops and just goes crazy. I won’t say anymore about that, because I wouldn’t want to give anything away . . . but the very last scene, with no dialogue or cutting, is pure and perfect cinema to the core.
More…
Now, maybe this sets a bad precedent, but I have to do it. It was the only way I could talk myself into cutting a few of these off the top ten.

Honorable Mention:

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

I saw this one twice. It’s just so wildly original; a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book . . . pure comic genius.

Taxi Driver

I read somewhere that a prominent movie critic declared at the end of the ’70s that it had been the worst decade in film history. Well, first of all, the man had obviously not yet encountered the 1980s (which were the worst years in film history, their dubious lone contribution being the establishment, but not invention, of the summer blockbuster). Second, I can hardly believe that anyone would make such a statement about the decade that produced both Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sting, and even Star Wars (to name just a few). It was quite possibly the best decade for American film, and arguably the most important since the introduction of the “talkie” in the late 1920s.

Well, that was kind of irrelevant. All that to say . . . Taxi Driver is both an important part of the milieu of 70s film, and a disturbingly sympathetic experience inside the mind of a sociopath. And also a really good movie.

Little Miss Sunshine

I’ve had a lot of enjoyment for indie films ever since I saw Garden State about two years ago. It was distributed by Fox Searchlight, which finds some of the best stuff . . . among them, last year’s Little Miss Sunshine. It is an extremely fun movie that I saw with Rachel and Randy and we reviewed for the YellowJacket. The great cast includes Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, and Steve Carrell, and it is part of a growing sub-genre of recent quirky (that’s the key adjective) movies about families (but definitely not for families) moving from dysfunctional bickering to warmth and fellowship.

Wordplay

Best documentary I’ve ever seen (besides Night and Fog, which is in a whole different class); interesting, entertaining, informative, innovative, hilarious . . . who knew an hour-and-a-half of crossword puzzles could be so manic and riveting?

The Prestige

I had a very hard time deciding between this and Stranger Than Fiction, and I’m not sure I could explain what made me go with the latter. Regardless, this is right up there among the best releases of 2006 with its brilliant cast, chilling Victorian atmosphere, dark and suspenseful plot, dizzying narrative technique, and Twilight Zone-esque flair. A must-see movie that I’d love to see receive some Oscar attention, but its chances are probably not as good as Stranger Than Fiction‘s, sadly.

The Mission

I was amazed by this movie, but even more than that I was amazed that no one had ever gotten me to watch it. Is it possible that Christians don’t realize this movie exists? It is a story of Christian love, grace, and redemption amidst the violence, evil, and greed of the world that tells its story with honesty and recognizes the hope and light that lie even in apparent defeat and darkness, and all with a PG rating. But you won’t find it in a Christian bookstore, and I’ve never once heard it mentioned amidst all the talk of Hollywood’s anti-religious bias . . . and that is something that I simply do not understand.

And that’s it for now . . . my mega-movie update of the past few months. Maybe one of these days I’ll have the time to devote to keeping up with writing thoughts on these fantastic films as I’m watching them. Novel concept, that.

Oh, and one last thing: the title of this post was cribbed from this excellent blog, which Mr. Wilson introduced me to some months ago. Check it out.

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~ by Jared on January 3, 2007.

One Response to “Filmchat”

  1. I think that the Mission is popular University fodder, but most students i know (like Asa) who have studied it in Lat. Am Studies type classes or Missions coursework. It is great film for sure.

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