Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

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The Babadook

Posted by martinteller on July 5, 2015

I don’t know what it is that makes horror such an appealing genre to me on Sunday afternoons.  Why do I crave that kind of experience at that particular time of the week?  Or maybe I’m generalizing from a specific moment.  I know that this Sunday afternoon I felt like watching a horror movie, and I know having that feeling at that time seemed familiar.  Perhaps it’s because a Sunday afternoon is the most relaxed time with the fewest stressors, making it the “safest” period to introduce some creepy tension.

With The Babadook, writer/director Jennifer Kent shows that she is quite good at generating creepy tension.  I’m not the first to praise the film’s use of unpredictable dread rather than “jump scares” (although I don’t have a blanket objection to jump scares) to frighten the viewer.  She presents a family situation loaded with horrible possibilities, and enough ambiguity that you don’t know where the next threat is going to come from.  It reminded me of several other films that deal with the horrors of parent-child relationships, from both sides of that dynamic: The ExorcistThe ShiningWe Need to Talk About KevinEraserhead.  Not copying any of them (though there may be a few deliberate homages), but evoking these familiar scenarios in a manner that shifts from one to the next.  It enhances the unease, not knowing which way the balance will turn next.

There are also overt cinematic references on the television that Amelia watches in her exhausted haze, from the supernatural experiments of Méliès to Phantom of the Opera to Carnival of Souls.  Movies feed our nightmares, stimulate the imagination.  They are real and unreal.  How real are they to Amelia?  How real is the Babadook?  I honestly don’t know if we’re meant to question that.  The ambiguity seems to give way to certainty later in the film, but I see a little wiggle room for interpretation.

If nothing else, it’s an unsettling movie with a gripping sense of the horror narrative.  To various degrees, it touches on the horrors of parenting, coping with consuming grief, and the effects of sleep deprivation on an increasingly fragile psyche.  Very gripping performance by Essie Davis, and young Noah Wiseman handles his role well.  Rating: Very Good (82)

IMDb

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Bless Their Little Hearts

Posted by martinteller on July 3, 2015

In South Central L.A., Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) is endlessly looking for work, picking up occasional day jobs while his wife Andais (Kaycee Moore) picks up the slack in providing for their three children.  Adding additional strain to the household is Charlie’s affair with an old flame.

The most celebrated movie of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement, an African-American collective of independent filmmakers, is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep.  This movie has much in common with it, starting with the fact that Burnett both wrote the screenplay and did the cinematography (not to mention the three Banks children are Burnett’s own kids).  It has a similar root in Italian neorealism — the episode with the fish may be a direct reference to La Terra Trema — with the use of non-actors and a focus on the social issues facing the underclass.

Like Killer of Sheep, the movie has a rambling structure that may make some viewers crave a stronger narrative.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that Hollywood was not telling this kind of story in 1984.  African-Americans were generally portrayed as pimps and thugs… if they were lucky, they got to be the sidekicks of white protagonists.  This was a rare opportunity to see African-Americans dealing with real life problems, as ordinary citizens.  There is no mention of drugs here.  The only evidence of gangs is the graffiti Charlie paints over on one of his odd jobs.  Charlie and his friends briefly bat around the idea of getting into robbery as a way to make a living, only to dismiss it as not right for them.  The problem they face is the same one that gives rise to drugs, gangs and crime: the lack of other opportunities.

And yet, Burnett and director Billy Woodberry don’t let Charlie completely off the hook, the hapless victim of an unjust economic structure.  Charlie doesn’t try as hard as he protests he does, or at least, he doesn’t appear to.  He lies to and cheats on his long-suffering wife,  who calls him out for hanging on to pipe dreams instead of facing the reality of their situation.  It evokes conflicted feelings for the viewer… we want to sympathize with Charlie’s situation, and yet he isn’t the greatest guy.  We must accept that the conditions are unfair, even when we don’t particularly like everyone affected by them.

The performances are sometimes glaringly amateur.  Hardman (who previously had a small role in Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding, another movie hampered by poor acting) is not especially convincing and often seems to be searching for his lines.  However, the film’s most powerful scene is a 10-minute argument between Hardman and Moore.  The accounts I can find suggest this scene was improvised.  Whatever they did, it paid off.  Moore — in general, the strongest of the cast — is especially riveting here, and her repeated cries of “I’m tired” have a mighty impact.

The film ends on a solemn note of hopelessness, in an ambiguous scene that again makes us question how we feel about Charlie’s character.  Is he walking away from a potential opportunity, or does he feel the futility of it all?  The film may be rough around the edges, but it has some complexity, honesty, and is of significance in America’s cinematic history.  Rating: Good (79)

IMDb

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June 2015 Recap

Posted by martinteller on June 30, 2015

3 new viewings
1 revisit

1. What We Do in the Shadows
2. Spy

3. The Future

The slowest month I’ve had since I started keeping track 12 years ago.  Hell, even when I was an ordinary, non-cinephile person I probably watched more than 4 movies a month on the average.  It’s just been a busy month for me and as I said before, we’ve been spending most of our free time (i.e., time not spent looking at and talking about houses) binging on television.  I expect July will be much the same.

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Spy

Posted by martinteller on June 26, 2015

Wow, has it really been two weeks since I last watched a movie?  I gotta say, I miss movies.  Carrie and I have been busy house-hunting and dealing with all that stuff, so mostly we’ve been spending the little free time we have watching TV.  But tonight we were bored and there wasn’t a show we were both excited to watch, so we decided to head out to the theater (which also has the advantage of being well air-conditioned).  I didn’t particularly want to see Inside Out and she didn’t particularly want to see Fury Road, but we were both into the idea of seeing Spy.

It was a damn good call.  Melissa McCarthy is hilarious (and Jason Statham matches her all the way) and the script sports a lot of funny dialogue and solid genre send-ups.  It’s more entertaining than any 007 flick since the Connery era.  It does occasionally get bogged down when too much attention is given to the uninspired plot, a muddled composite of ho-hum espionage tropes.  But when it focuses on the gags and the action, it’s rock solid entertainment.  And furthermore, it deftly avoids the numerous pitfalls that could have arisen from a story centered around a fat woman.  None of the humor comes from Susan Cooper’s size, and she comes off as a strong, capable character… whose physical achievements are far less implausible than those of James Bond or Jason Bourne.  I’ll gladly see the sequel.  There’s gonna be a sequel, right?  Rating: Very Good (85)

IMDb

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The Future

Posted by martinteller on June 13, 2015

Sophie (Miranda July, also writing and directing) teaches dance to children.  Jason (Hamish Linklater) works from home doing tech support.  The two live together, four years into a comfortable relationship.  They come across an injured cat, who they name Paw-Paw (voiced by July) and take to the vet  They want to adopt Paw-Paw, but he’s been diagnosed with kidney failure.  He needs another month in the hospital, and after that will require diligent care.  Foreseeing a future shackled with responsibility while their dreams fade away, they quit their jobs and follow their impulses.  Jason signs up with an environmental organization, selling trees door-to-door.  Sophie attempts to make a new YouTube dance video every day, but fails, instead entering an affair.

July’s first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, felt lightweight but was enjoyable both because of and despite its quirkiness (it also is the source of one of the more memorable cards in “Cards Against Humanity”).  Six years later, she delivers a disappointing sophomore film.  These two main characters are in their mid-30’s but act at least 10 years younger.  They’re mired in the sort of Gen-X slackerism that most of us left behind long ago.  They talk to each other in an annoyingly affected manner that suggests they’re somewhere on the autism spectrum.  July says she hasn’t had a day job since she was 23… this script indicates that she’s still stuck at that age.

Some of it comes off like unconvincing shorthand.  See how these people belong together because they have the same haircut.  Love them because they’re so whimsical and sensitive.  But they’re stunted in their growth.  They can’t seem to handle anything.  I couldn’t make myself care about them, except hoping they didn’t procreate and make more people just like them.  Of course, that’s highly unlikely, considering how daunted they are by the responsibility of caring for a sick cat.

Surprisingly, among the movie’s many quirks, the narrating cat is one of the more palatable ones.  “Paw-Paw” provides the only truly affecting moments, and more than anything I hoped that he would be okay.  There’s a magic realism turn late in the film, one that serves as both a reasonably effective metaphor for depression and as a sort of relationship crisis wish-fulfillment.  And there is at least one good laugh in the movie (“I think that’s racist”).  It’s mostly just the two main characters who ruin everything.  The quiet panic in their eyes, their kooky banter, their lack of direction… none of it is endearing.  July’s film succeeds in its bold strokes, but fails in crafting sympathetic people to work with.  Rating: Poor (56)

IMDb

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The River (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on June 13, 2015

Ming-liang Tsai has directed 10 feature films.  The four that are available on Blu-Ray — his three earliest and his latest — are all among the bottom half of his work, by my reckoning.  While I’m not going to complain about Tsai getting the hi-def treatment, I sure do wish they’d get some of my favorites out there (Visage hasn’t even shown up on DVD yet).  Still, it’s great to see this in a beautiful presentation.  The screenshot above is from the old DVD because I don’t have the ability to play Blu-Rays on my computer, but trust me — the image quality is vastly improved.

As always, I feel the need to clarify that just because this isn’t one of my favorites by Tsai doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing.  It demonstrates a gradual development in his style and his talents, which would come to full flower in his next feature, The Hole.  To those unfamiliar with the film, it concerns Hsiao-kang (Kang-sheng Lee), a nondescript young man who bumps into an old friend or old flame, played by Shiang-chyi Chen.  The girl takes him to a location shoot where she is a production assistant.  The director (Ann Hui, presumably playing herself) is trying to shoot a corpse floating face down in the river, but it isn’t convincing enough.  She talks Hsiao-kang into doing it, and soon after he develops a chronic neck pain.  Meanwhile, his mother (Yi-Ching Lu) is carrying on an affair with a pornographer, and his father (Tien Miao) is cruising gay bathhouses.

Such is the story, as it unfolds in long, extremely patient takes.  Tsai’s pet themes are everpresent: emotional repression, joyless sexual encounters, urban alienation, isolation, water as both a lifeforce (or perhaps, as Jonathan Rosenbaum postulates, sexual desire) and an uncomfortable intruder.  It also showcases some of Tsai’s typical deadpan humor, which typically involves watching the characters stumble their way through awkward or difficult situations.  But the lightness here is no match for the bleakness, and I think this stands as Tsai’s most cynical film.  Perhaps that’s why it isn’t one of my favorites, despite such refined style and expression.  There is no ray of hope at the end, only a sense that things aren’t going to get better, and have probably gotten much worse.  Hsiao-kang’s lingering on the balcony certainly suggests a fleeting suicidal impulse, echoing back to the previous film, Vive L’Amour.

So disconnected is this family that Hsiao-kang’s parents walk right past him in the hospital corridor, oblivious to his existence.  It’s also one of the very few moments where the parents are seen together, though the mother follows at such a distance that they might as well be strangers to each other.  Tsai gives us no impression that there is any love lost between them.  As far as we can see, they have always been like this, living their lives apart, seeking fleeting sexual satisfaction elsewhere.  As for Hsiao-kang, the first time we see him with his father is a random encounter on the street, and they show no signs of recognition, much less familial relation.  It should be noted that Lee’s physical performance is masterful.  Never have I felt such sympathy pain for a character, a pain that goes entirely unrelieved, even during orgasm.

There’s one curious thing I noticed for the first time.  The first line of dialogue is Shiang-chyi Chen addressing our hero as “Lee Kang-sheng”.  The actor’s name, not the character’s.  It wasn’t just a subtitling error, I listened three times myself to confirm it.  I thought at first it was an indication that the person who gets in the river is Lee and the character with the neck pain is someone entirely different.  Which would have been an intriguing twist, but my theory was deflated when Hui distinctly refers to him as “Hsiao-kang”.  So what is Tsai playing at here?  Is it some meta- game here, or is it simply a dialogue flub that slipped through the cracks?  I presume the latter, but it’s an interesting tidbit that highlights how closely Lee is identified with the recurring character (or recurring name, anyway).  Rating: Very Good (86)

IMDb

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Top 100

Posted by martinteller on June 10, 2015

1. Fanny and Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman)

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2. Mahanagar a.k.a. The Big City (1963, Satyajit Ray)

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3. The Hole (1998, Ming-liang Tsai)

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4. A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes)

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5. Linda Linda Linda (2005, Nobuhiro Yamashita)

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6. Charulata (1964, Satyajit Ray)

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7. Scenes From a Marriage (1973, Ingmar Bergman)

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8. Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)

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9. Time of the Gypsies (1988, Emir Kusturica)

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10. An Angel at My Table (1990, Jane Campion)

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11. Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)

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12. Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch)

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13. Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

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14. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)

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15. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)

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16. The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)

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17. Jules and Jim (1962, Francois Truffaut)

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18. Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

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19. The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000, Anh Hung Tran)

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20. Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)

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21. Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (1963, Kon Ichikawa)

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22. What Time Is It There? (2001, Ming-liang Tsai)

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23. Girl Walk//All Day (2011, Jason Krupnick)

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24. The Trial (1962, Orson Welles)

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25. The Blues Brothers (1980, John Landis)

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26. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)

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27. Nights of Cabiria (1957, Federico Fellini)

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28. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)

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29. Stop Making Sense (1984, Jonathan Demme)

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30. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)

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31. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)

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32. Hausu a.k.a. House (1977, Nobuhiko Obayashi)

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33. Once (2006, John Varney)

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34. 8½ (1963, Federico Fellini)

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35. All About My Mother (1999, Pedro Almodovar)

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36. El Norte (1983, Gregory Nava)

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37. The Scent of Green Papaya (1993, Anh Hung Tran)

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38. Innocence (2004, Lucile Hadzihalilovic)

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39. The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

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40. Airplane! (1980, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker)

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41. Drugstore Cowboy (1989, Gus Van Sant)

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42. The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)

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43. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)

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44. Winter Light (1962, Ingmar Bergman)

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45. Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

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46. The Turin Horse (2011, Bela Tarr)

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47. High and Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa)

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48. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)

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49. Last Year at Marienbad (1961, Alain Resnais)

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50. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Bela Tarr)

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51. Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander Mackendrick)

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52. The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

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53. Woman in the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara)

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54. The Long Day Closes (1992, Terence Davies)

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55. American Movie (1999, Chris Smith)

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56. Red Beard (1965, Akira Kurosawa)

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57. The Wayward Cloud (2005, Ming-liang Tsai)

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58. Songs from the Second Floor (2000, Roy Andersson)

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59. Syndromes and a Century (2006, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

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60. Secrets & Lies (1996, Mike Leigh)

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61. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

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62. Devils on the Doorstep (2000, Wen Jiang)

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63. Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch)

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64. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)

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65. The Dead (1987, John Huston)

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66. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, Vincente Minnelli)

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67. Safe (1995, Todd Haynes)

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68. The Story of Qiu Ju (1992, Zhang Yimou)

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69. Devi (1960, Satyajit Ray)

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70. A Moment of Innocence (1996, Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

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71. The Lineup (1958, Don Siegel)

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72. The New World (2005, Terrence Malick)

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73. Three Colors: Blue (1993, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

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74. In the Loop (2009, Armando Iannucci)

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75. The Burglar (1957, Paul Wendkos)

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76. I Fidanzati (1963, Ermanno Olmi)

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77. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)

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78. Hairspray (1988, John Waters)

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79. Shame (1968, Ingmar Bergman)

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80. Cairo Station (1958, Youssef Chahine)

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81. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)

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82. All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

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83. Wendy and Lucy (2008, Kelly Reichardt)

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84. A Page of Madness (1926, Teinosuke Kinugasa)

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85. A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson)

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86. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000, Jonas Mekas)

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87. The Exterminating Angel (1962, Luis Bunuel)

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88. The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson)

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89. Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)

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90. The Cloud-Capped Star (1960, Ritwik Ghatak)

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91. Thirst for Love (1966, Koreyoshi Kurahara)

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92. Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)

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93. Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk)

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94. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, Peter Weir)

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95. Rat-Trap (1982, Adoor Gopalakrishnan)

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96. Rosetta (1999, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)

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97. Malcolm X (1992, Spike Lee)

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98. The Match Factory Girl (1990, Aki Kaurismaki)

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99. Wallace and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers (1993, Nick Park)

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100. Xanadu (1980, Robert Greenwald)

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Very minor updates this year.  On principle, I hate to lose one of my few female-directed films, but I just no longer feel that Sita Sings the Blues belongs on this list.  It was also the only animated movie, but it’s been replaced with The Wrong Trousers… which is now the shortest film in my top 100.  I’ve resisted putting shorts on the list in the past, but a recent revisit with this delightful, masterful Wallace & Gromit tale convinced me to make an exception.

I also dropped Playtime, as my journey through the Tati box set was a disappointing one.  I simply don’t love him like I once did.  Taking up its spot is an old favorite, Ordinary People.  Somehow it never felt “worthy” of inclusion before, but I can no longer deny the emotional power the movie holds over me.  Perhaps I’ve lost another piece of burdensome cinesnobbery.

I also moved up Girl Walk//All Day and moved down All That Jazz.  Also just now I decided to knock The Exterminating Angel further down the list because it felt way too high up there.  Just minor fiddling with the arbitrary numbers that are somehow supposed to represent my tastes.

That’s all I did to the top 100, but there are also a few changes in the 101-250 list.  I had to make room for Sita and Playtime, so I dropped Le bonheur (with some regret again for shafting a female director) and The Bothersome Man.  I also wanted to add The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Black Stallion, so I removed The Wind Will Carry Us and The Thin Red Line.

You may have noticed I did not put “(2015 revision)” in the title of this post.  That’s because this is likely to be the last time I post an update to these lists.  If I have any changes to make in the future, I’ll just edit this entry.  For better and for worse, my tastes have gradually solidified into a personal canon that is unlikely to shift very much.  And really, this all feels a little too pointlessly anal.  More and more, movies are becoming a hobby to me rather than an obsession.  I can’t deny I get some satisfaction from assigning numbers to them and ranking them in lists, but it’s less important to me than it once was.

Posted in My Lists | 6 Comments »

What We Do in the Shadows

Posted by martinteller on June 8, 2015

Quick post here because I’ve got a million little things to take care of.  Carrie and I watched this on our honeymoon, at the recommendation of my friend (and best man!) Chris.  All I knew was that it was a comedy and had some kind of connection to “Flight of the Conchords”.  I’ve never watched that show but I’ve heard great things.  I really enjoyed this movie, a vampire farce.  I’m usually amused when people apply mundane social awkwardness to unusual situations, that kind of humor just works for me.  There’s a lot of funny here.  They wisely keep the movie short, before the premise starts to run out of gas.  I can’t recall any bits that flat out didn’t work, but there were a couple of stretches that were less funny than the rest of it.  Okay that’s all I got.  This is the worst review I’ve written in a while, but fuck it, I need to go do stuff.  Note to self: watch “Flight of the Conchords”.  Rating: Very Good (86)

IMDb

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May 2015 Recap

Posted by martinteller on May 29, 2015

13 new viewings (plus 1 short)
5 revisits

1. Watership Down
2. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
3. Intimate Lighting
4. Nightcrawler
5. No No Sleep
6. Titli
7. Pitch Perfect

8. Boyhood
9. Never Cry Wolf
10. The Way We Are
11. St. Louis Blues
12. Casbah

13. Times Square
14. The Inner Scar

I’m gonna be pretty busy the next few days so I might as well do the monthly wrapup early.  I managed to squeeze in quite a few despite a long weekend away from home, and all the business of putting a wedding together.  And some really good movies too.  As far as consistency goes, I think it’s the best month I’ve had in over a year.  The only film I didn’t write about was my umpteenth viewing of GoodFellas.  Still one of my absolute favorites for all the reasons I’ve written about before… just an exhilarating experience.

Hey everyone, I’m getting MARRIED!  TOMORROW!  And then we’re off to Belize!  See ya next month!

Posted in Monthly Recaps | 2 Comments »

Vive L’Amour (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on May 27, 2015

This is likely to be the last movie I will watch as a single man.  Quite appropriate, considering how much the film is about singleness.  Three characters occupy the same apartment, but spend their time hiding from each other, failing to connect, or connecting in ways that are empty, one-sided, unfulfilling.  Hsiao-kang (Kang-sheng Lee) can’t act on his desire for Ah-jung (Chao-jung Chan).  Ah-jung can’t get May Lin (Kuei-Mei Yang) to acknowledge him, or even remember him.  May Lin throws herself into one-night stands with Ah-jung, but can’t bear to — or doesn’t know how, or doesn’t show if she wants to — take it to a deeper level.

Ah-jung, the most confident of the three, is the least affected by the disconnection.  But early on we see Hsiao-kang make a half-hearted suicide attempt, and there’s a moment where May Lin appears to be contemplating it.  These two characters are experiencing deep loneliness and existential pain, though their faces are often blank, expressionless.  Are we all doomed to be as solitary and self-contained as cremation urns?  Even in the same chamber, they are separate.

At this point in his career, Tsai hasn’t fully embraced the power of the long take.  The dialogue is minimal (though compared to Goodbye Dragon Inn it might as well be a Paddy Chayefsky script) but we don’t get so many long, lingering shots of characters just being.  There’s still quite a bit of doing, action expressing emotional state in more overt ways than Tsai would soon develop.  But he does seem to understand that the real power of the final scene is not May Lin’s emotional outburst.  It’s not the tears that make it so heartbreaking.  It’s the pause in the middle, where she lights a cigarette, takes a deep breath, and composes herself.  The crying is a catharsis, and a beautiful one, but it’s this so very human moment that indicates Tsai is starting to master his style.  Rating: Very Good (85)

IMDb

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