Friday, January 30, 2015

Top 10: 2014

Earlier today, I wrote a paragraph on each of the movies in my top ten, along with a 600-word introduction. I was struggling with the tone, and I realized it's because, in the past year, real life has changed the way I watch movies. My moviegoing habits haven't changed, but since my dad's death last spring, I find myself valuing movies for different reasons. But honestly, it read like it should be titled "Top 10 Sad Things That Happened To Me This Year." I just deleted it all, and it feels liberating. However, I did enjoy putting together a playlist of songs from the movies listed below, and, if you have the time, I think it actually serves as a pretty good mixtape for 2014. Happy new year, everyone.

My top ten:

1. Under the Skin
2. Inherent Vice 
3. The Babadook
4. Selma
5. Only Lovers Left Alive 
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
7. Blue Ruin
8. Boyhood 
9. Love is Strange 
10. Birdman

The rest of my Muriels ballot:

Best Lead Performance, Male

1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
2. David Oyelowo, Selma
3. Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
4. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
5. Macon Blair, Blue Ruin

Best Lead Performance, Female

1. Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
2. Essie Davis, The Babadook
3. Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant
4. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
5. Jenny Slate, Obvious Child

Best Supporting Performance, Male

1. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
2. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
3. Patrick D'Assumçao, Stranger by the Lake
4. Tyler Perry, Gone Girl
5. Jonathan Pryce, Listen Up Philip

Best Supporting Performance, Female

1. Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer
2. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
3. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
4. Emma Stone, Birdman
5. Emily Blunt, Into the Woods

Best Direction

1. Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin
2. Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
3. Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
4. Ava DuVernay, Selma
5. Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Screenplay

1. Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
3. Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
4. Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, Love is Strange
5. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

Best Cinematography

1. Robert Elswit, Inherent Vice
2. Dick Pope, Mr. Turner
3. Darius Khondji, The Immigrant
4. Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
5. Bradford Young, Selma

Best Editing 

1. Sandra Adair, Boyhood
2. Kirk Baxter, Gone Girl
3. Barney Pilling, The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Leslie Jones, Inherent Vice
5. Simon Njoo, The Babadook

Best Music

1. Mica Levi, Under the Skin
2. Antonio Sanchez, Birdman
3. Hans Zimmer, Interstellar
4. Jonny Greenwood, Inherent Vice
5. Josef van Wissem, Carter Logan, Jim Jarmusch and Shane Stoneback, Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Documentary 

1. Life Itself
2. The Last of the Unjust
3. Citizenfour

Best Cinematic Moment 

1. “Trapped By a Thing Called Love,” Only Lovers Left Alive
2. Flying, Birdman
3. “Journey Through the Past,” Inherent Vice
4. Opening sequence, Under the Skin
5. Final shot, The Immigrant
6. Godzilla’s first appearance, Godzilla
7. School car, Snowpiercer
8. “I feel everything,” Lucy
9. Creation story, Noah
10. “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Cinematic Breakthrough 

1. Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
2. Ava DuVernay, Selma
3. Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin
4. Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
5. Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child

Best Body of Work 

1. Scarlett Johansson
2. Tilda Swinton
3. Joaquin Phoenix
4. Emily Blunt
5. Jake Gyllenhaal

Best Ensemble Performance 

1. Selma
2. Inherent Vice
3. Love is Strange
4. Birdman
5. We Are the Best!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Top 10: 2004

1. Kill Bill vol. 2 (Tarantino)
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry)
3. Sideways (Payne)
4. Birth (Glazer)
5. Spider-Man 2 (Raimi)
6. Shaun of the Dead (Wright)
7. Before Sunset (Linklater)
8. The Incredibles (Bird)
9. The Aviator (Scorsese)
10. Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Top 10: 1994

1. Ed Wood (Burton)
2. Heavenly Creatures (Jackson)
3. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino)
4. Chungking Express (Wong)
5. Hoop Dreams (James)
6. Red (Kieslowski)
7. Natural Born Killers (Stone)
8. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Rudolph)
9. Little Women (Armstrong)
10. The Hudsucker Proxy (Coen)

Friday, January 09, 2015

Top 10: 1984

1. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone)
2. Amadeus (Forman)
3. The Terminator (Cameron)
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven)
5. This is Spinal Tap (Reiner)
6. Paris, Texas (Wenders)
7. Gremlins (Dante)
8. Ghostbusters (Reitman)
9. Stop Making Sense (Demme)
10. Repo Man (Cox)

Friday, January 02, 2015

Top 10: 1974

1. The Conversation (Coppola)
2. Chinatown (Polanski)
3. The Godfather Part II (Coppola)
4. Phantom of the Paradise (De Palma)
5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper)
6. A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes)
7. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette)
8. Young Frankenstein (Brooks)
9. Arabian Nights (Pasolini)
10. Black Christmas (Clark)

Friday, October 31, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 30 - Braindead (aka Dead Alive)

#1 - 21 Votes

The surprise (to me, anyway) victory of Braindead - re-titled Dead Alive in North America - in this poll must be at least partly attributable to the enduring popularity of zombies. The walking dead were in a bit of a lull during the decade - other than the screenplay for the Night of the Living Dead remake, George A. Romero took a break from zombies, and besides Cemetery Man, the list of other notable zombie movies is pretty short (only Return of the Living Dead 3 and the comedy My Boyfriend's Back come to mind). When Braindead was released in the U.S. in 1993, trends in horror movies were making a distinct turn away from the fantastic in favor of serial killers and sci-fi horror, which helped the film stand out in a crowded genre. And director Peter Jackson's take on the undead is nothing if not fantastic; in a little over an hour and a half, Jackson manages to put his rapidly rotting supporting cast through just about every puerile, gory gag one could think of, and even manages to invent a few new ones. Even if you're not a fan of constant, stomach-turning violence, you can't help admiring his showmanship.

As Stephen King put it in his book Danse Macabre, Jackson goes directly for the gross-out here. His first two features, the practically homemade Bad Taste and the slightly more polished Meet the Feebles, were gleefully tasteless, with content as crude as his filmmaking often was. Braindead was a big step forward for the filmmaker - the direction and performances are more assured from the start, and his screenplay (co-written with his partner Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair) is impressively nuanced, which isn't something one can always say about a movie where a lady's ear lands in a bowl of custard. When nebbishy mama's boy Lionel's (Timothy Balme) mum Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is infected by the bite of a Sumatran rat monkey, he continues caring for her after she's taken to eating dogs and tearing peoples' heads off, which threatens to put a stop to his budding romance with shop girl Paquita (Diana Peñalver). It's a story that would work as a romantic comedy with an Oedipal conflict even before you add in the dog eating and decapitations.

It's a big step forward, too, in terms of the effects Jackson, who cooked the makeup appliances for Bad Taste in his parents' oven, was able to work with a team of makeup artists, including Bob McCarron, who'd worked on The Road Warrior and Razorback. The effects are the star here, as Jackson and his team let their imaginations run wild; Braindead's zombies' individual parts keep on ticking even after they've been removed from the rest of the body, which allows for flying limbs, bisected heads with eyes that continue to see, and a large intestine that becomes a sort of character of its own towards the end. The showstopper is the climactic scene where Lionel mows down dozens of zombies with his lawnmower; the scene used 300 gallons of fake blood, and the movie in general reportedly used more fake blood than any other, though I'm not sure if there's any way to be sure (does every horror movie crew keep a count?). The movie would be unwatchable if it weren't for the peculiarly cheerful, cartoonish approach Jackson takes - the gore here isn't too far, in spirit, from my six-year-old's bloody drawings of zombies and monsters biting off peoples' heads, and the movie's grisly sight gags and physical comedy owe as much to Chuck Jones as they do to Sam Raimi. Braindead's best and funniest scene, Lionel's trip to the park with a zombie baby, wouldn't seem out of place in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and I love that the scene was thought up on the fly when Jackson and his crew wrapped early and had an extra day left in the shooting schedule.

Of course, the scene where a priest discovers zombies outside his church and reveals himself to be a kung fu master is another favorite, and for good reason - we're given no advance context for the priest's martial arts abilities, which only makes it funnier, and the line "I kick ass for the Lord" is just perfect. But the scene also points towards the influence Braindead, like the Evil Dead movies, had on lesser imitators. We've been inundated in recent years with countless low-rent zombie movies - Zombie Strippers, Ninjas vs. Zombies, Zombeavers - where the filmmakers combined blood and guts with some sort of obvious juxtaposition between zombies and strippers, ninjas, beavers or whatever they thought of after fifteen seconds of effort. There are enough of these movies that, presumably, stoners browsing Netflix are enough to keep them in the black. Shaun of the Dead was one of the few movies to take the right lesson from Braindead, creating a grounded story with relatable characters, then seeing how introducing zombies into the movie shakes up the relationships and personal conflicts the movie has already established. While there have been plenty of solid horror movies in recent years, the glut of half-assed horror-comedies makes one wish that Jackson - who followed up Braindead with the drama Heavenly Creatures, still his best movie, starting him on the path towards Oscars and billion-dollar grosses - might be inclined to make a movie that nods to his roots, as Sam Raimi did with Drag Me to Hell, now that he's finally done with Middle Earth (one can hope). Either way, Dead Alive is as fun as it was two decades ago, and the perfect way to end the '90s Horror Poll - thanks again to everyone who submitted a list, and especially to my contributors, Alex Jackson and Christopher Fujino. Happy Halloween!

U.S. Release Date: February 12, 1993 (Also released that day: Groundhog Day, Untamed Heart, The Temp, Love Field, Strictly Ballroom)

What critics said at the time:

"Because all of this looks blatantly unreal, and because the timing of the shock effects is so haphazard, 'Dead Alive' isn't especially scary or repulsive. Nor is it very funny. Long before it's over, the half-hour-plus bloodbath that is the climax of the film has become an interminable bore." - Stephen Holden, New York Times

"Jackson, obviously aware of the cliché-ridden dangers of 'horror comedies,' chucks convention and good taste out the window and goes for the gusto (or is that 'gutso'?) with uncanny results. The film moves from gag to gore to gag again like a rocket from the crypt and never lets up - just when you think you've seen the worst, Jackson tops himself and there you are squirming in your seat again (and loving every minute of it). Sick. Perverse. Brilliant." - Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle

Thursday, October 30, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 29 - Scream

#2 (Tie) - 15 Votes

It's hard to explain what the initial impact of Scream was like to people who were too young to see it when it was released (back then, popcorn cost a dime, we had to walk five miles through the snow to get to the nickelodeon, and so forth). Released with little fanfare during the holiday season alongside several higher-profile movies, the movie's opening weekend was small, and while the reviews were generally positive, nobody was predicting it would be the start of a blockbuster franchise. A few TV spots and a review in the Boston Globe comparing the movie to Halloween had me intrigued, so I convinced my older brother to take us. The audience was far from packed, but as the movie began, we were almost immediately on the edge of our seats. There are always anecdotal stories about audiences screaming and talking back to the screen at horror movies, but Scream was one of the few times I personally experienced anything like that.

The famous opening sequence is so crucial to the success of the rest of the movie because it raises the stakes to such a severe degree that, no matter how jokey and self-referential the movie gets, the gruesome image of a disemboweled Drew Barrymore hanging from a tree lingers in our recent memories. The opening introduces the premise of horror movie victims (and killers) who are well versed in horror movie tropes, but though the killer name-drops Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, there's no sense of ironic detachment in how Craven stages the stalking and murder of Barrymore's character, Casey. From the cold open on Casey answering the phone, the way Craven constructs the sequence is not quite like anything we'd seen from him before; he was always a very intelligent filmmaker, but never quite as stylistically precise. Much of this was likely built into Kevin Williamson's script, with doorbells, Jiffy Pop and the ringing of Casey's phone punctuating the scene and keeping us on edge. But the scene might be Craven's strongest work as a director; as the killer flirts with, then taunts and eventually chases after Casey, the eerily smooth Steadicam shots tracking her around and outside the house do a fantastic job of tightening the screws. And between Barrymore's excellent, visibly shaken performance and the great, tragic moment where Casey's parents arrive moments too late, it's the rare slasher movie scene with pathos and a palpable sense of loss.

The tone of the rest of the movie is considerably lighter; with the brutal opening sequence hanging over everything, it doesn't have to get as grisly to keep us on edge. The premise is well-known by now, and Scream was far from the first horror movie to feature cinema-literate characters and call attention to itself as a movie. What made it feel fresh was not just that the teenagers in the movie had seen scary movies, but that they had a very '90s, very teenage sense of irony and cynicism. When movie geek Randy is lecturing a room full of people with the rules to survive a scary movie, it doesn't matter that the rules immediately remind of a long list of exceptions (Jamie Lee Curtis doesn't have sex in Halloween, but she does smoke a joint while listening to Blue Oyster Cult). What matters is that this media-literate smartass thinks that being able to identify horror cliché somehow protects him from real-life horror (it doesn't). Underneath the clever pop culture references, the darker existential irony of Scream is that these characters can know they're victims and joke about it, but most of them are still going to die. While some aspects of the movie are distinctly of their time (remember when Skeet Ulrich was a thing?), it's that funny/queasy central joke that makes the movie hold up today.

Scream was released by Dimension films, the genre-based division of Miramax, whose founders, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, had produced The Burning, one of the first wave of slashers, fifteen years earlier. Dimension was their attempt to mimic the success New Line had seen with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, which mostly resulted in crappy sequels to Hellraiser and Children of the Corn. Scream was Dimension's first big success, and it led to a brief period when Kevin Williamson was a mini-industry, as well as a slew of Scream-influenced self-referential horror movies with casts handpicked from the WB. In the three years after Scream's release, Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, Halloween H20, Disturbing BehaviorUrban Legend and Teaching Mrs. Tingle were all made from the template of Craven's movie with varying degrees of shamelessness. To trace Scream's influence, do an image search on any of these movies and you'll see they all have the same poster - a glossy shot with the star in the center, flanked on both sides by the other young, photogenic members of the cast. Still, as easy as it is to begrudge Scream for its influence, it really was a breath of fresh air for a genre that had grown very stale in 1996. Also, anyone who knows Wes Craven's body of work had to take some perverse enjoyment out of the fact that the director of Last House on the Left made a blockbuster that was beloved by 12-year-old girls. 

U.S. Release Date: December 20, 1996 (Also released that day: Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, One Fine Day, My Fellow Americans, Ghosts of Mississippi, Marvin's Room, The Whole Wide World, In Love and War)

What critics said at the time:

"Director Wes Craven is on familiar turf with his latest thriller, 'Scream.' The setting is a small town, the protagonists are teens, and there’s a psychotic killer on the prowl. But he may have gone to the trough once too often, attempting an uneasy balance of genre convention and sophisticated parody. The pic’s chills are top-notch, but its underlying mockish tone won’t please die-hard fans. That adds up to no more than modest commercial returns and fast theatrical playoff." - Leonard Klady, Variety

" [...] Craven and Williamson turn 'Scream' into a self-reflexive romp that owes as much to the experimental fiction of Borges and Calvino as the seminal work of John Carpenter ('Halloween') and Sean S. Cunningham ('Friday the 13th'). With Courteney Cox as a tabloid TV reporter, David Arquette as the town's bumbling deputy and Drew Barrymore as a special guest victim, 'Scream' builds to a splattering finale that should leave genre fans highly satisfied. Here's to one of the year's better thrillers, just in time for Christmas." - Dave Kehr, New York Daily News