Friday, February 3, 2012

Four Years of Blogging and 2011 (sorta) in Review

There’s this tendency in the blogosphere that if one doesn’t move quickly -- whether that's with their thoughts on the latest movie or by the amount of posts they produce -- they’ll be rendered insignificant. Now, granted, this may all be made up in my own mind since I am a person that prefers to view films and post about them at my own speed, but I think there is this general feeling that if your site isn’t getting hits – and isn’t getting hits about the latest releases – then you’re doing something wrong. 

No, this isn’t one of those posts where I proclaim that I just can’t do this anymore – because, seriously, how much of a chore is it really to watch and write about movies – no, the thing I constantly have to come to terms with are the droughts – the three or four month periods of time – where I go without having the time to really watch or write about anything. That, for me, is the hardest part: finding a balance between work and life and hobby. I suppose I could do the Twitter thing to share my initial thoughts about things, but I would hate to replace this blog with 140 characters or less. So, considering this is the blog’s fourth anniversary, I think I’m going to do something different this year for my year-end post. One reason is I haven’t even begun to make a dent on my viewing list for movies released this past year. I think I’ve seen maybe 25 movies, tops. I only went to the theater five times this year – three of those were to see The Tree of Life – and my queue at home has grown when usually I’ve pared it down to a just a couple of films by this time of the year. So, I can’t do a traditional list this year because there’s still so much for me to see (as you’ll see late on in this post), and I just didn’t have the time to see everything I needed to (or even write about the films I did see, for that matter…there’s still about 10 half-assed capsule reviews on my flash drive that I don’t think will ever see the light of day). Instead, I think I’m going to piggyback off of an idea that Jim Emerson linked to in a recent post.

Before we get to what Emerson has to say, though, I should say a few things about the 2011 films I did see...

If I were going to make a basic top ten list this year, the top film of the year – without any debate in my opinion – would be Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I wrote about it here and here. A film of wonder, hope, and love – just as Mrs. O’Brien’s voiceover tells us at the end of the film as the O’Brien film leaves their Texas home – that touched the deepest parts of me and moved me like no other film in recent memory. I mentioned in my second review of the film that I was, to put it simply, grateful for Malick’s vision and the journey it took for him to get that vision onto the screen. The film just made me feel grateful for film as an art form and all of the things it the medium can do to help us better navigate the waters of life.

I also really enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s letter of love to film preservation, the 3-D Hugo, which I thought was a really superb example of how to correctly use 3-D. For cinephiles of all ages – as well as creating new cinephiles – Hugo is, not unlike Malick’s film, a film that represents everything great about the cinema and the power it has to elicit great emotions that other mediums can’t. My favorite performance of the year was Paul Rudd in Our Idiot Brother. Rudd’s performance was – along with Rashida Jones, Steve Coogan, and others in the great ensemble – the highlight of a pretty average, albeit incredibly warm and smile-inducing, picture. I love that the film really didn’t condescend Rudd’s character and turn him into a caricature, which could have been really easy for the writers to do.

I also enjoyed certain moments in throwaway movies like: Crazy, Stupid, Love. (the opening), Your Highness (James Franco), The Ides of March (the final shot), The Lincoln Lawyer (effectively efficient thriller), Everything Must Go (surprising performance from Will Ferrell that has a lot of depth to it), Real Steel (loved Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm in this movie), Sucker Punch (Snyder is more than just a hack ripping off Tarantino), and I’m sure there are others I’m missing. I was really impressed with the surprising Warrior – which boasts a great performance by Nick Nolte who is earning well-deserved end-of-the-year accolades – and a couple of small indie films, Win Win and Terri anchored by great, veteran indie performances by Paul Giamatti and John C. Reilly respectively. I would mention the amazing Korean horror/procedural I Saw the Devil here, but I don’t know if that counts as a 2010 film or 2011…and the same goes for Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage. Joe Wright’s Hanna was surprisingly good, and I really enjoyed yet another cerebral science-fiction film from Duncan Jones as his Source Code was one of better films to be released in the “lets-just-get-this-film-released-because-we-have-no-idea-what-to-do-with-it” Feburary dumping grounds.

I was bummed out by the underwhelming Super – even though I really liked Rainn Wilson’s performance –- and the disappointing Moneyball as well as the mediocre 50/50 despite Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing his damndest to save the movie. The Adjustment Bureau was all kinds of boring, a too by-the-numbers production to really get me involved; the same goes for Steven Soderbergh’s slick but empty ensemble thriller, Contagion. I thought Thor was one of the most painfully and hysterically awful comic book movies to be released in some time; I saw it on some year-end lists, and I just don’t get it. I’ve never been a Branagh fan to begin with, but this was just way too goofy for how seriously the filmmakers wanted us to take it. Finally, perhaps the film that confounded me the most was Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. I didn’t hate the movie, by any means, but it did leave me feeling like I should have felt more than I did when I left the theater.

I still have yet to see Margaret (doubt I ever will unless it hits DVD), and I still need to see Take Shelter, Rango, Midnight in Paris, Meek’s Cutoff, Bridesmaids, X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger, Drive, A Seperation, The Guard, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Interrupters, The Skin I Live In, We Are What We Are, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Immortals, Melancholia, The Artist, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Dangerous Method, Young Adult, Carnage, Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocal, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Certified Copy just to name a few (whew…and a bunch are in my queue ready to be reviewed and the rest I have to wait for a DVD release date, but I plan on reviewing most of these throughout the year; it’s why I can’t give a traditional year-end list). 

Some of my favorite TV moments this year were the surprising season finale to the second season of “Boardwalk Empire,” and the great season-long story arc of the second season of “Justified.” Larry David returned to HBO with the eighth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” which was more hit and miss than any previous season, yet it still contained some all-time great moments (the moments with Ricky Gervais, Leon driving Larry’s Prius from LA to New York, or the fact that Jeff never saw The Sting but saw The Sting Part II and actually kind of liked it) and some perfect episodes that rank among the series’ best (“The Palestine Chicken” and “Mister Softee”) that make me hope that David won’t take another two-year hiatus before he returns; there will always be funny situations of David to mine from, and because the seasons are only 10 episodes each, it never has a chance to wear out its welcome.  But the best TV this year was, surprisingly, found on NBC. While its flagship show, “The Office,” is in a major creative funk (yet still the only one of their shows that brings in ratings) attentive viewers found consistent humor (both subdued and zany) and warmth in two shows: “Community” and “Parks and Recreation.” The former was sadly cut short in its third season, but its second season was a great mashup of parody and traditional sitcom humor. The show’s favorite term was meta (and they even committed a few episodes to this idea) and gave us one of the best comic duos on TV in Abed and Troy. The My Dinner with Andre parody episode was one of the most brilliant things on TV in 2011 (especially the way Abed talks about his love for “Cougar Town” which eventually did lead to Daniel Pudi making a cameo appearance on “Cougar Town”), and the fake clip show (and the claymation episode and the Sergio Leone episodes and...) was just an amazing half-hour of television comedy for everyone who hates clip shows. As far as “Parks and Recreation” goes, I’ll have more on that later.

Now onto the list Emerson was talking about:

Jim sets up the ground rules (which come from Matt Zoller Seitz) as thus:

Matt Zoller Seitz devotes his final Friday Night Seitz slideshow at Salon (he's starting as New York Magazine's TV critic Monday -- most deserved congrats!) to a list of his "Movies for a desert island." His rules: ten movies only, plus one short and one single seasons of a TV series, for a total of 12 titles. "Part of the fun of this exercise," he writes, "is figuring out what you think you can watch over and over, and what you can live without."

OK, I'm game. So, the challenge, as MZS sets it up, is not just to pick "favorites," but to choose pictures that will stand up to repeated viewing since nobody is going to get you (or vote you) off the island and "It is assumed that you'll have an indestructible DVD player with a solar-recharging power source, so let's not get bogged down in refrigerator logic, mm'kay?"

So, yeah, in lieu of a traditional end-of-the-year top ten list, I submit my desert island DVDs. Enjoy (with the caveat that I could obviously replace a few of these selections with different movies depending on my mood that day).

The Short:

Rifftrax – What is Nothing?

A bit of a cheat here as the short in question – a bizarre, 1970’s short film about two kids asking a bunch of existential questions on a summer’s day – is a Rifftrax. For those of you that don’t know, Rifftrax is the work of Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbet – otherwise known as those guys from “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” So, technically this is a short, but it’s rendered silly and goofy by the riffing going on, and since I’m on a desert island, it’s just about the most perfect representation for what makes “MST3K” and Rifftrax so great.

TV Series:

Parks and Recreation: Season 3

I was so, so tempted to go with season one of “Deadwood” or season 3 of “The West Wing.” But I decided I would want to be a little more happy on my desert island (not that those great dramas don’t make me happy; it’s just…it’s a different kind of happy), so I went with my favorite show on television right now (and something that is slowly rivaling “The Simpsons”): season 3 of “Parks and Recreation.” Now, I’m tempted just to put, “the first 11 episodes of Season 4” on here because of how damn amazing the three episodes, “End of the World” (specifically the scene with Andy and April at the end), “The Trial of Leslie Knope” (that ending in the snow!), and “Citizen Knope” (the line, “Ron Swanson, any other damn thing you need” still gets me choked up), but I don’t think that really qualifies, so I’ll go with what is easily the sweetest, warmest, funniest, and just downright most brilliant comedic television made in the modern era of the medium. My explanation for why any season of “The Simpsons” isn’t being chosen is below, so I wanted to just go with something that makes me absolutely happy every time I watch it (not to mention that show runners Mike Schur and Greg Daniels have successfully turned Pawnee, and the characters that inhabit it, into a live action Springfield). I’m a pretty cynical guy, and I’m not one to be averse to that style of humor (the aforementioned Rifftrax selection being Exhibit A or anything by Larry David or Ricky Gervais), but just watch the episodes “Harvest Festival” and “Fancy Party” (free if you click those links) and see if you can get the smile off your face in less than 24 hours. It’s literally – to quote Chris Traegar – impossible. It’s one of the best and most consistent pieces of comedic television writing/producing since Season 4 of “Seinfeld.”

The Films:

8 ½ - My favorite film ever made. A brilliant mixture of the poignant and the fantastical; a film for both film buffs (it is the greatest film ever made about filmmaking) and for the un-initiated (whether that’s art house film, films made for cinephiles, or foreign films). In short, it’s the best example I can think of that perfectly blends narrative with aesthetics. It’s a beautifully funny and heartbreaking – and extremely well crafted – postmodern tale about connecting to our own histories in hopes of figuring something out about ourselves in the present. I probably watch it once a year. My in-depth thoughts about the movie can be found here

The Beyond - I had to get not just a horror movie on here but an Italian horror movie. It’s hard to decide just one title from your favorite genre to take with you, but I thought that Luci Fulci’s The Beyond was the one film that encapsulated everything I love about the Italian horror genre. You have quicklime, zombies, gates to hell being opened, man-eating spiders, acid eating at people’s faces, heads exploding, bad dubbing, an insane narrative arc, graphic make-up effects, dogs killing their masters, and of course the Fulci staple: eyeballs being popped out of their sockets. Yes, it has all of those great, campy Italian horror qualities to it, but it also shares the qualities that the best Italian horror films have: it’s beautiful to look at. I don’t know that Fulci ever made a movie where all of his crazy ideas and élan coalesced so perfectly. It’s the perfect example of everything I love about Italian horror. 

Casino - There are so many Martin Scorsese films to choose from, but this is probably the one I could watch 100 times and never tire of it. Unfairly accused of as being just a mere simulacrum of Scorsese’s more popular mobster films, Casino is, to me, the culmination of everything Scorsese made famous with films like Mean Streets and Goodfellas (and I think it’s better than Goodfellas, too). There’s an energy here that the actors bring to the film that is hard not to fall in love with, and what I love about Casino more than just Joe Pesci’s gonzo performance as a complete wild card (the pen scene and that desert scene are a thing of profane beauty), James Woods’ sleazy pimp, Sharon Stone’s over-dramatics, or Robert DeNiro’s subtly brilliant performance is just the sheer madness and joy Scorsese and lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker have splicing this thing together using every kind of trick in their seemingly bottomless bag: whip pans, crane shots, voiceovers, dissolves, zooms, tracking shots, the use of popular music of the era, etc.; it's just a blast to watch. It’s like going to see one of your favorite bands play live, and watching them play the classics with renewed fervor and expertise. It’s epic in length, it’s violent and profane, it films old Las Vegas with such love and nostalgia that it’s almost painful to watch its inevitable decline, and it’s one of the absolute best examples of watching an old master deliver us something that he’s been fine-tuning his whole career 
Inglourious Basterds - Only a few years old, Inglourious Basterds is a film that is ridiculously re-watchable. Like Scorsese’s Casino, I think it’s the film that Tarantino has been working towards his whole career; it’s the perfect mixture of memorable dialogue and visual homage. There are so many memorable moments and tense scenes of dialogue, yet for the first time it isn’t really Tarantino’s dialogue that makes the film so memorable; it’s the way he constructs an absolutely perfect homage from beginning to end and still makes it feel fresh. The film feels more epic than Kill Bill and more tightly constructed than Jackie Brown. It’s not as influential or groundbreaking as Pulp Fiction was, but – from beginning to end – it’s a more complete film that is more entertaining. If there’s one thing about Tarantino that people complain about it’s that he’s nothing more than a mere aper; however, Inglourious Basterds, like every Tarantino film, takes the ideas of others and filters them through a loving and original eye. And that’s the difference: it’s not just that Tarantino is putting to film references to things that only he gets and trying to pass them off as his own…it’s like Scorsese’s love to copy the masters in his films; it’s a way of preserving and paying respect to the artists that influenced them the most. And that’s what I love about Tarantino’s (and Scorsese) films. I agree with Tarantino’s self-reflexive bit of dialogue at the end of Basterds as Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine looks into the camera and says, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” Yup. 
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - My first real summer blockbuster experience is also my favorite entry in the iconic Indiana Jones series. My brothers and I went to see this thing at least five times in the summer of 1989, and I don’t think we were ever bored with it once. I recently just watched the movie on mute while I was at Thanksgiving dinner with my wife’s side of the family, and I had no problem remembering every beat to the story and every bit of dialogue. The perfect companion for a desert island as it’s a perfect reminder of how fun summer movies are supposed to be. A part of my childhood that I knew from the second I constructed this list I wanted to bring along. 
Lethal Weapon - I wanted to think of one ‘80s action movie that best represented my love for the genre when I was a pre-teen cinephile. I loved action films, and I thought about putting Commando on here or RoboCop or Aliens or Hard Boiled or even something like Under Siege, but I ultimately went with Lethal Weapon (I almost went with the sequel) because I think I legit wore the VHS tape out from watching it so much. I still stop and watch it every time it pops up on TV. The perfect action movie that pioneered the buddy cop formula and made a huge star out of Mel Gibson; it’s a reminder of how action movies could be legitimate films that mixed wit with frenetic energy and violence. Roger Ebert’s description of the film as a “brusied forearm movie” is about the perfect explanation; it’s a movie that never has a dull moment yet never feels boring because of too much action.
Mahler - If I’m going to be on an island, I need something from Uncle Ken to keep me company. Also, I would want something with good music to keep me company, and I can think of no better island companion than Gustav Mahler. Whenever I felt the need for some batshit crazy escpasism accompanied by some of the most brilliant and beautiful music ever…I could just pop this bad boy in. Sure, it’s not Russell’s best film (I almost chose Tommy for this slot), but it’s highly entertaining visually and beautiful aurally. 

Raising Arizona - I knew I wanted a Coen Brothers movie on here, and this is probably my favorite of theirs. I went back and forth on whether I would rather watch this, No Country for Old Men or Fargo over and over, and nostalgia – as well as wanting a good laugh whilst on this island – won out in the end. I used to watch it religiously when I worked at a video store in high school, and I remember introducing it to countless people in college. And every subsequent viewing brought forth some new kind of joy to take away from the film. Sure, like all Coen films, it’s quotable, but it’s also got a lot of heart in its own, weird, Coen-y way. I quote this movie just about every day ("Does the pope wear a funny hat?"; "You hear that...we're using code names;" "I'm crappin' you negative;" "Not unless round is funny"; "I'll be taking these Huggies, and whatever cash you have in the register"; "I come from a long line of frontiersman and outdoors type"; "You ate sand?,"T-I-G-ER!"; "Say that reminds me..."), but it's not just the great quotable dialogue (a staple of all Coen films) that makes the movie one of my favorites. I still get a little choked up at that ending.

The Simpsons Movie - It would be impossible for me to select one season of Simpsons television to bring with me, so I kind did a cop out here and just went with the movie. It’s a pretty good reminder of some of the series’ best bits compiled by the show’s greatest contributors (John Swartzwelder, David Mirkin, Al Jean, Mike Scully, Jon Vitti, Matt Selman et al), and it looks great, too! Plus, Albert Brooks…I mean come on! The Simpsons Movie has a re-watchability factor that reminds me of the show’s best seasons.

Vertigo - Not much to say here: if Fellini’s film is the greatest of all time, then Hitchcock’s Vertigo is an easy choice for second. It’s the one film I always point to when people ask me what I think a perfect film looks like. Every frame of the film is filled with mystery and beauty, and it still holds up today. I could watch it a million times and never tire of Scottie Ferguson’s journey/descent.  Vertigo is the best example of Hitch’s craft – all he is known for and why he’s still being studied frame by frame; it’s an experience that is always an absolute joy because you’re watching an old master work his magic and manipulate you every step of the way. It’s one of those choices where I probably don’t need to justify it being on here.

There ya have it. What would your desert island DVDs be?


  1. I would've chosen almost the same DVD's, even if we have some disparities (I liked Adjustment Bureau and Thor quite a bit), nevertheless we have an amazing similar taste, even if I haven't seen 81/2 (I would've chosen Donnie Darko), I love Vertigo and the Simpsons Movie, Inglourious Basterds is in my top 10 of all time, The Beyond is just genius, I love Rifftrax, MST3K, Raising Arizona is my favorite Coen brothers, Last Crusade is my favorite Indiana Jones and my pick for Spielberg's masterpiece... heck.
    Anyway, I understand the lack of a list, it's ok and I look forward to more writing from you in 2012.

  2. Nice round-up, Kevin. Inglourious Basterds is definitely super-rewatchable. I saw it twice in the theaters (and I NEVER do that) and have seen it, in part or as a whole, countless times since. It never gets old, I get hypnotized by its brilliant dialogue and beautiful imagery every time. It'd be a desert island pick for me too.

    I just recently rewatched all the Indy movies, for the first time since I was a kid, and liked The Last Crusade a lot. That was the one Indy film that I knew I liked but didn't remember as well as the first two, and it really held up marvelously. Raiders is maybe a hair better, if only because it has the edge of Marion Ravenwood, but really they're both great.

    For Hitchcock, I'd choose either Rear Window or North By Northwest as my favorite and the one I'd want to watch over and over again. Vertigo is probably deeper but those two just delight me in every way, and I'm not sure I could handle watching Vertigo constantly.

    My desert island list would be pretty predictable, I'm sure: Mulholland Dr., Sans Soleil (that would scratch some of the Vertigo itch, anyway), Bonjour Tristesse, something by Rohmer, something by Godard (damn those would be tough choices), Only Angels Have Wings or Rio Bravo, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Holiday.

    The short would be easy: Martin Arnold's endlessly entertaining, hilarious Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy.

  3. Somehow I missed this when you first posted it, so I'm just getting around to commenting.

    For me, when time is short, it's awfully hard to choose between catching up on recent stuff, or finally getting around to watching the hundreds of older movies I've never seen, or, as is the case lately, just mindlessly watching Rifftrax and having a laugh. There will always be too much to watch, won't there.

    If you have to see on of those movies from 2011, see Certified Copy. I rate it as the best thing I've seen from either 2010 or 2011.

    I really like your choice of Season 3 of Parks and Rec as a dessert island choice -- it's the best comedic TV since at least Arrested Devlopment and perhaps it will hold up better in the long run because it actually seems to like/care about its characters. I was tempted to go with the last season of The Shield, but I think the depressing nature of that isn't something I'd want to rewatch repeatedly, so I'll take Season 8 of MST3K and watch Reb Brown screaming or check in on Ben Murphy and Robert Denby whenever I need some cheering up.

    My desert island films would be Wall-E, Sullivan's Travels, Le Samourai, North By Northwest, Cat People, Mullholland Drive, Once Upon A Time In The West, The Conformist, In The Mood For Love, and It's A Wonderful Life (and all are apt to change if I made this list tomorrow).

    Also, it's hard to choose a "best" Rifftrax short and I could probably list 20 or so, but I'll go with "Improve Your Pronunciation" as my favorite (though I just realized I haven't yet watched "What Is Nothing?)"