Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My All-Time Top 10 Movies

It’s probably just coincidence, but the most creative periods for the movies seem to occur about every 30 years, usually triggered by some new technology. First came the short burst of experimentation by people like Georges Méliès during the last few years of the 19th century, right after the medium was invented. The latest is the digital revolution that started around the turn of this century, making it possible for almost anyone to make a movie (and enabling a whole new level of intimacy between filmmaker and subject) by eliminating the need for expensive film processing and slashing the cost and size of professional-quality cameras. But my favorite golden age is the one that stretched from the late ‘20s to the early ‘40s in Hollywood. Old pros who’d cut their teeth on countless shorts showed us what could be done with silent film while upstarts like Howard Hawks and the Marx Brothers played with synchronous sound, that shiny new toy, in movies crammed to the brim with fast, funny talk. That probably explains why half of my 10 favorites were made during a 14-year period that ended as WWII began.

The General (1926) Buster Keaton
The world was a much slower place in 1926, and filmmakers tended to draw things out far longer than they do now. But Buster Keaton's pacing, which probably felt breakneck at the time, still holds up four generations after its debut. The General opens with a sweetly funny, narratively economic setup that moves at a deceptively leisurely pace until we know everything we need to understand about our hero and his situation. Then we hurtle into the almost nonstop action of the rest of the film, which Buster co-wrote, co-directed, and co-edited. There's great comic timing in these edits, along with a genius's understanding of his still-new medium.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

We’re all wise to the tricks the media is trying to play on us by now, but that kind of self-awareness was still pretty new when Monty Python started deconstructing every medium they worked in, weaving spoofs of TV or movie conventions into the fabric of almost every scene and transition.

Those spoofs were just part of a grab bag of gags in their first theatrical feature, And Now for Something Completely Different, an often hilarious but jerkily disjunct collection of skits that plays like a longer than usual episode of their TV show, with a few nods to the new medium tossed in here and there. But with their second feature, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Pythons took a great leap forward, creating a jokily self-aware narrative that keeps interrupting itself yet somehow manages to feel seamless.

Friday, July 13, 2012

To Rome with Love

In To Rome with Love, Phyllis (a resplendent Judy Davis, looser than I can remember ever having seen her before), the sardonically supportive wife of Woody Allen’s Jerry, tells her husband he hates being retired “because you equate retirement with death.”

A former music producer, Jerry is different from Allen in several significant ways, starting with the fact that he never achieved the fame Woody has lived with for years—and, judging by the many comic variations on that theme played out in this movie, learned to appreciate without taking it too seriously. But Jerry’s dread of retirement may well be something Woody shares. After all, if the old dog can produce a trick as neat as this one and make it seem so effortless, after close to half a century of making about a movie a year, why on earth would he want to stop?

Friday, July 6, 2012


Collaborator promises at first to be pleasantly loaded with subtext. Slow tracking shots make even luxurious environments look ominous as well cared-for while slightly haggard-looking people move languidly through stylishly spare homes and offices that might have come straight from the pages of Dwell. But it turns out to be merely ponderous, packed full of somber symbols and meta metaphors.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


In this comedy of bad manners, writer/director brothers Mark and Jay Duplass position their zoom-happy handheld camera, as usual, on the thin line between ridiculous and real.

This time, the subject is sibling rivalry. Like Jeff Who Lives at Home, Do-Deca-Pentathlon is set in the brothers’ hometown of New Orleans, centered in a friendly-looking slice of middle-class America full of cozy houses and convenience stores, gas stations and strip malls.