Saturday, December 15, 2012

Top Films 2012

My list of the top films I've seen this year.  There is no particular ranking.  Some of these films are new releases and some are old. Also, it would take me weeks to give all of these films the special attention they deserve. 

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968)
William Greaves
A significant experimental documentary about the process of filmmaking.  Worthy of noting is Greaves' creative use of split screen processing.  I hope more people discover this film. 

One of the first films I watched in film school was Un Chien Andalou (1929) and I remember being shocked by its experimentation.  The ending of Simon of the Desert is surreal, outrageous, and absolutely brilliant. The chamber drama of The Exterminating Angel had me laughing.  At the same time, I kept thinking - he shot a masterpiece that takes place in a music room!

Fish Tank (2009)
Andrea Arnold

A British film about Mia (Katie Jarvis) a 15-year-old lonely and isolated teenager who has a talent for dancing and becomes attracted to her mother's boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbinder).  This is a gritty and emotional drama.  It is interesting to compare this film with Silver Linings Playbook...

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
David O. Russel
I love David O. Russell's work.  This is a mash up of genres and a lot fun.  Reminded me of the madcap films of the 1930s. Great acting - especially De Niro's performance. 

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson continues to make interesting coming of age drama/comedies.
Skyfall (2012)
Sam Mendes
This is clearly up there with the great films of the Bond franchise.  Javier Bardem's long take entrance and monologue about rats was absolutely brilliant.  Great action film that actually raises some interesting points about transparency, surveillance, and terrorism in the digital age.

Room 237 (2012)
Rodney Ascher
A highly engrossing documentary about the various interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.  This documentary demonstrates how time-shifting technologies are impacting spectatorship, allowing viewers to closely exam the moving-image. 

The Leopard (1963)
Luchino Visconti
Made by one Italy's best filmmakers.  Long, slow, beautiful, and ethereal.  The wedding sequence at the end is unbelievable.

From Here to Eternity (1953)
Fred Zinnemann
Excellent melodrama before the attacks on Pearl Harbor.  Important film for its depiction of sexuality in the early 1950s. 
Bernie (2012)
Richard Linklater

One of the best performances of the year.  Black should be nominated for an Academy award.  I love the structure of the film - reminded me of Bob Fosse's Lenny (1974).

Death of a Cyclist (1955)
Juan Antonio Bardem
Made by Javier Bardem's uncle, great thriller from Spain in the Hitchcock tradition.
49th Parallel (1941)
Michael Powell
See my random review.

Amreerka (2009)
Cherien Dabis
Great melodrama about a Palaestian mother and her son who move to Illinois.  At times a bit sappy, but I really liked this film.

 Advise and Consent (1962)
Otto Preminger
Long and excellent film made by one of the greats of the classical period.  With all of the sex scandals in politics, this film is even more important today.  Betty White has a small role.

The Guard (2011)
John Michael
Hilarious and smart movie.  Great dialogue.  I particularly loved the gangster's conversation about Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bertand Russell early in the film - very funny.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
David Fincher
David Fincher continues to make great movies.  The chemistry between Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara works very well.  I love how the film combines digital technologies and physical materials such as documents and photos to solve the mystery.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Random Review - December 12, 2012

 Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
Writen and Directed by Preston Sturges

CAST: Rex Harrison as Sir Alfred De Carter; Linda Darnell as Daphne De Carter; Rudy Vallee as August Henshler; Barbara Lawrence as Barbara Henshler; Kurt Kreuger as Anthony Windborn; Lionel Stander as Hugo Standoff; Edgar Kennedy as Detective Sweeney; Alan Bridge as House Detective; Julius Tannen as O'Brien; Torben Meyer as Dr. Schultz. 

Unfaithfully Yours begin with Alfred, a famous orchestra conductor arriving in town from London.  At the airport, Alfred meets his wife, Daphne and her sister, Barbara and her husband, August, and Alfred’s business manager, Hugo.  We find out that August had been looking after Daphne while Alfred was away.  But August actually thought that Alfred wanted her literally followed, so he hired a detective.  This angers Alfred.  August gives Alfred the detective's report which he tears to pieces.  As the film continues, Alfred keeps receiving a copy of the detective’s report.  Finally, when he meets up with Detective Sweeny, he rips up the original report so no more copies can be made.  But then Sweeney tells Alfred that Daphne had been seen with Tony, suggesting an affair.  Later that night, Alfred heads to the concert hall for this performance.   

Over each number, Alfred envisions three scenarios of on how he would evoke revenge on Daphne.  The first vision is a skit where he murders Daphne and pins the blame on Tony; the second is Alfred forgiving Daphne and writes her a check for $100,000; and that last is Alfred forcing himself, Tony and Daphne to a game of Russian roulette, resulting in Alfred shooting himself.  The films ends with Alfred in a prolonged slap stick skit of trying to orchestrate Daphne’s murder, which, of course, completely fails.  But at the end he learns that Daphne was not with Tony.  Yet, Daphne never finds out what was on Alfred’s mind - the three imagined scenarios of her death.

An object that plays an important, but subtle role throughout Unfaithfully Yours is the use of zippers and in relation to Alfred's reluctance to read the detectives report.  During the restaurant scene, early in the film, Alfred approaches August and asks him for the detective’s card.  The image cuts to an extreme close up of the wallet as August unzips it and retrieves the card.  Of course, Alfred tears the card into pieces.  But what is striking about this moment is that Sturges amplifies the sound of the zipper to draw our attention to the object, suggesting that there is something happening in Alfred’s head that neither the spectator nor the characters are privy to. One possibility is that Alfred has always been insecure about his marriage to Daphne because of his age.

For example, Alfred states to Daphne before heading to his concert, (paraphrasing) “Movies fits your culture better.”  So when Sweeny tells Alfred that his wife was with Tony, he assumes the worse, which leads to his visions of enacting revenge on them.  It is at this point in the film Sturges “unzips” Alfred’s head so we can see his mind's eye - the three fantasy sequences.   

But for Daphne and the other characters, they are “zipped up” and, of course, not accessed to Alfred's visions.  They can only hear the music, oblivious on why Alfred acts so peculiar at the concert.  In between the numbers, Hugo approaches Alfred backstage praising his conducting. Hugo ironically states to Alfred, “What vision do you have in your head?” It is only at the end, when the letter finally arrives at its destination, that Alfred learns that Daphne did not commit adultery.  All the work Alfred put into ripping up the detectives story, Alfred finally gets the truth of the letter, which zips the story shut.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Top Non-Fiction Books 2012

Below is my top list of non-fiction books I read this year.  No particular ranking.

Straightedge Youth: Complexity and Contradications of a Subculture
by Robert T. Wood

Wood's sociological and cultural studies account of the straightedge music scene greatly contributes to the field of subculture.  Wood's central argument is that when members become disenchanted with the values of their subculture, sub-groups form out what he refers to as "schisms."  Straightedge was a result of a schism in the punk rock and hardcore scenes of the early 1980s.  This is a great companion piece to Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style.

War and Cinema
by Paul Virilio

Virilio's central claim is that the development of film technologies are intimately linked to warfare technologies and strategies of war.  One of Virilio's best books on speed and technology.
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics
by N. Katherine Hayles

I became interested in Hayles' work in a course I took at Claremont Graduate University on Visual Research Methodologies.  Hayles' book explores the question of embodiment, materiality and virtuality in the age of high technologies.  A complex read, yet totally rewarding.  I learned a lot about cybernetics. 

Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno
by Miriam Hansen

Superbly written book on the writings of Kracauer, Benjamin, and Adorno, three great writers of film and culture of the twentieth century.  I particularly enjoyed reading about the various stages of Benjamin's canonical essay, "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

 Optical Media
by  Friedrich Kittler

Unapologetic as a technological determinist, Kittler traces Renaissance art to computational machines. The key points is that the emergence of optical media now allows us to store, transmit and process information.  This is a great read and very accessible. 

Widescreen Cinema
by John Belton

Belton considers economic, historical, and technological factors that led to the film industry's conversion to widescreen in the 1950s.  To compete with television, the film industry marketed widescreen and bigger and better sound as if you were going to an amusement park.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
by Neil Postman

Postman argues that forms of television have significantly impacted the production of knowledge in everyday life. He attacks television that takes itself seriously, especially when it involves politics. Highly polemic, this is an essential read for those studying television.  I kept thinking about this book during the Presidential debates this year. 

Roman Polanski
by James Morrison

Excellently written by my colleague and friend.  I had the great pleasure of taking film classes taught by Jim.  This is a fabulous book on Roman Polanski.  Highlight is the chapter on Rosemary's Baby and the occult.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Top Fiction Books 2012

My top list of fictional books I read this year.   No particular ranking.  Other lists will soon follow.  I thought of the music show Later...with Jools Holland when putting my lists together, looking at literature and film from a variety of genres and time periods.

The Mayor of Casterbridge
by Thomas Hardy

The story of Michael Henchard begins with him getting drunk at a fair and then selling his wife.  Remorseful of his actions, he gives up the drink and eventually becomes the mayor of Casterbridge.  When I read the back cover of this book, my first though was that this book has to be read.  A great melodrama.  One scene worthy noting is when the townspeople skimmity ride through the town to publicly shame Henchard and Lucetta.  This part of the story demonstrates that big new scandals and carnivalish ways of gossiping have been around for quite a while.  Hardy leaves us wondering whether or not this is a novel of fate. Probably one of the best books I have ever read. 

The Shining
by Stephen King

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is one of my favorite films and what led me to go to film school in 1993.  I finally read the book to see what Kubrick left out of the story.  This is a great book and much different from the movie.  Whereas King emphasizes the supernatural, Kubrick underscores the psychological.  I particularly love the The Wasp's Nest sequence.  Of course, in the novel you get a deeper understanding of Jack Torrance and his dissent into madness. There are some really scary moments, especially "The Elevator" scene.  King is a great storyteller.

Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury 

Bradbury's dystopia world where books are banned and burned.  Great book about literature and mass media.  It is worthy to note that this book came out shortly after Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's essay: "The Cultural Industry," which deals with mass entertainment and mass culture.  Francois Truffaut's film adaption of the novel is also worth checking out.  

The Invisible Man
by H.G. Wells

One of the great all-time science-fiction novels about Griffin (the invisible man) who takes residence in a small village to conduct his research.  Griffin eventually turns to robbing the villagers in order to generate money for his rent.  Once the villagers discover that Griffin is invisible, a mob is formed and they attempt to capture him.  I kept thinking about Michel Foucault's work on the panopticon as I read this. In many ways, Griffin intensifies the villagers' sense of looking and self-scrutiny in a sort of surveillance fashion.  When it comes to surveillance, Foucault argues that it is not that someone is actually watching you that makes the panopticon effective.  It is the fact that you don't know if someone is watching you and what internalizes the gaze.  I believe Griffin has this effect on the villagers.

by Jonathan Frazen

Franzen covers a lot of ground in this long tale of the Berglunds family.  Franzen takes his time, providing the reader a detailed account of each character.  The description and dialogue are excellent here.  The storytelling is non-linear, suggesting the disconnection of the Berglunds.  I particularly love the character Richard, a disenchanted punk rocker who has a sort of strange relationship with Walter Berglund.  Though not as great as The Corrections, this was a long, yet rewarding read.  Franzen is one of our best contemporary writers.

Young Hearts Crying
by Richard Yates

Yates' gritty and melodramatic novel about of the Davenport couple.  For more, see my random review.

The Dead
James Joyce

Joyce's beautifully written novella at the turn of the twentieth century.  See my random review on John Huston's film adaptation.

Mother Night
by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut's novel tells the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr, an American Nazi playwright living in New York city.   See my random review about the film adaption. 

From Hell
by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Alan Moore is known widely for writing Watchmen, probably one of the most important graphic novels of the twentieth century.  From Hell deals with Jack the Ripper which speculates the motives behind these horrific murders in England.  This is a haunting, gruesome and philosophical tale on the nature of evil and madness.