#61: Hud and  Cool Hand Luke
Hud (USA, 1963; dir. Martin Ritt; cin. James Wong Howe; with Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Brandon de Wilde, Patricia Neal, Whit Bissell, Crahan Denton, Val Avery)
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Luke (USA, 1967; dir. Stuart Rosenberg; cin. Conrad L. Hall; with Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet, J.D. Cannon, Richard Davalos, Dennis Hopper)
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Exactly five minutes and thirty seconds of Hud transpire before Paul Newman enters. The time is hardly wasted, resplendent as it is with James Wong Howe's widescreen black-and-white photography, marrying pristine formal composition and sublime light and contrast to the parched desolation of a fossilized Texas; shimmering as it also is with a quiet Elmer Bernstein score that both shares and fosters the brimming-heart melancholy of the images. Long, flattened horizons; long, flattened cars; grass and scrub flattened by wind; long, wide roads; wide brims on tall hats atop tall men and boys with long gazes and flat voices; longing; ways of life, long but now flat. Hud evokes all of these things, quickly and fully, and if the tone and camerawork sometimes tilt into self-mythologizing, the myth exerts a strong claim, a persuasive allure. And then, speaking of allure, Brandon de Wilde's awkward, proud, lonely, and sentimental adolescent Lonnie Bannon goes looking for his roustabout uncle Hud, tracking his pink Cadillac (inevitably) to the curbside of some under-attended housewife, pipping and then blaring the horn on Hud's own steering wheel to call his uncle forth from some lithe, clammy iniquity. The screen door pops open: Hud. "Honcho," he calls to his nephew, leaning against a porch railing, insolent, the cock of every walk, "I just hope for your sake that this house is on fire."

Child, the house is definitely on fire. In a crossword puzzle, Hud, in or out of italics, would serve well as a three-letter synonym for sex. And yet, for an actor so universally and deservedly associated with the quality of decency—with bounteous charity, compassionate politics, a legendary marriage, faultless generosity toward his co-stars—Newman's haughty indecency in Hud is a perennial shock, feeding risk and danger into the movie but also into Newman's own performance, because it doesn't come naturally. Newman shapes Hud's libido into something elemental to the character and the story but also, from an actorly standpoint, far from effortless. Where Brando's Stanley Kowalski melds virility with vulgarity at the character's core and mantle, Newman's prowess but also his limits as an actor open up an interesting chasm between his essential, irrefragable manliness, inhabited as casually as a flannel shirt through a five-decade career, and his technical, occasionally studious projection of sexuality. Among the actors to whom he was initially most compared—Brando, Clift, and Dean—Newman is simultaneously, for me, the least gifted and the most interesting. Brando's acting, practiced and deliberate though it is, feels buried down in his marrow, Clift's and Dean's wound and tangled around their nerve endings. Newman's the only one whom one can imagine spending his life another way (in business, in public service, in friendship, in good health), and though the urge to act seems to run deep, allowing him a physical spontaneity and a palpable conviction on screen, what he delivers as acting comes across as a very conscious, careful process, self-reflective and scrupulous. His casting in Hud is therefore even more inspired than it looks. Everyone on screen, especially Melvyn Douglas' humiliated patriarch and Patricia Neal's tart housekeeper (disillusioned and saddened by her own self-protective wisdom), wrestle with those id-level responses to Hud that are a grounding conceit of the script, but they also, because of Newman, engage mentally with Hud. Their questions hum in the air: how could a son so insistently disappoint and rebuke a father? How could a man so degrade himself before a woman, seizing what he might have gotten by asking? How could Hud be so careless with a brother's memory, so inadequate to his shadow? These questions are richer than they might have been in Hud because Newman—tactfully and artfully, but also because this is the sort of actor he is—creates Hud as a sum of conscious choices, not an animal or an icon. His vicissitudes, shames, affronts, and inadequacies are the evolving products of a human life, not the contours of an allegorical figure. He seems like he could change, but he doesn't, or won't. He retains a core of decency which he rarely allows to breathe, for reasons which are his own, though Newman invites us to guess at them.

Four years later, in Cool Hand Luke, Newman stepped into another leading role that the screenwriters and the director can't help but position in the realm of the parable. They haven't fully agreed, with each other or with themselves, about what kind of parable, so Christic imagery dukes it out with midcentury rebel chic and also, amid the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with a vision of lean, able masculinity Taylorized beyond belief and slung between the alternatives of compliance and execution. Conrad Hall, as gifted a cinematographer as Howe but temperamentally dissimilar, dapples the cast in natural light and allows the camera to draw energy from their exertions, their impudence, their bonhomie. Interior scenes are less visually interesting, though one of Luke's best scenes is one of its quietest and most static: the hero's covert interview with his dying mother, Arletta (the incomparable Jo Van Fleet). Through it all, Stuart Rosenberg's movie toggles back and forth between a portrait of community and an ode to the individual, but somewhere along the way, its thematic ambivalence and episodic structure start to feel like major virtues: Cool Hand Luke is one of our most lived-in and pleasurably paced odes to nonconformity, magnifying the athletic, good-natured gratuitousness of the hog-wrestling scene in Hud to full feature length. Newman looks and acts much more at home in Lucas Jackson's skin than in Hud Bannon's eroticized armor, basing this performance not on productive paradox but on flexibility, charisma, alertness in the moment. He trims the more florid gestures and supporting performances to human size—adding a further dimension to Luke's eventual plea that his comrades start living for and through themselves, not vicariously through him. Those interesting moments of crisis notwithstanding, Newman's utter confidence as an actor steadies the movie through its shakier passages, and he thus lifts the curtain on the second, long stage of his career. By this bifurcating arithmetic, Hud is the best example of Newman as Student, adapting himself to a difficult movie, deepening the film through his own hard work and contradictory traits; Cool Hand Luke is the best example of Newman as Teacher, of a movie adapting itself to Newman, surviving its most dated effects and questionable story choices by dint of the actor's contagious aura of integrity, versatility, credibility, and good sense.

#62: The Crying Game
(UK, 1992; dir. Neil Jordan; cin. Ian Wilson; with Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, Jaye Davidson, Miranda Richardson, Adrian Dunbar, Jim Broadbent, Ralph Brown)

Neil Jordan's The Crying Game lives and dies by the power of the narratives it produces, both within the movie and among its audiences. I saw the movie when I was in high school, and yes, I had already surmised the Twist. Oscar's taxonomies only confirmed suspicions that I had already gleaned from the unique sort of hubbub swirling around this tiny picture. People I knew seemed as proud not to have "figured out" the riddle as they normally were to outwit one—what was that about? Time Magazine devoted a stand-alone story to the movie, which was exceptional enough, but then when I re-read the article to figure out why it read so strangely, and I noticed how stringently the whole article refused personal pronouns, my inner switch really clicked. For me, though, Knowing the Secret was only the start of the voyage, and the fun. As a 15-year-old, privy only to the dimmest and most distant Morse Code bulletins about my own desires, the prospect of seeing a movie where homosexuality figured so decisively—and presumably in a way that avoided or at least challenged the old stereotypes, since otherwise, would Time have cared?—was almost unutterably delicious. My older brother and his friend saw it the night before I did, and though they were both totally stunned by "the" revelation, neither of them were all that moved. They drove me to the same shopping-mall multiplex the next night so that I could see for myself, and then joined me right following for Scent of a Woman. Thank goodness Scent hardly required more than a modicum of attention, so I could easily sit there replaying The Crying Game over and over inside my mind, hyperstimulated to a level that verged on the narcotic.

Watching The Crying Game now is nothing like the same experience, for any number of reasons. Both in my personal life and in the wider culture, the film's images of a gay watering hole and its verbal and visual rhetoric around homosexuality seem almost quaint. Maybe in 1992 The Crying Game already looked quaint to people who had actually visited a gay bar or a drag performance, or who had real-life honest-to-God queer acquaintances. As for me, I was watching from a vantage of such conjecture and fantasy that I remember feeling wholly seduced, not by the secrets but by the surfaces: how beautiful Dil was, how much I liked her form-fitting wine-colored suit and Miranda Richardson's heavy cable-knit sweater (thus commencing my 14-year affair with Sandy Powell), and best of all, how capably and, in my opinion, sophisticatedly the film interwove its sexual themes into other political arguments. In a film that, as far as I had been told, pivoted entirely on one big reveal, it seemed to me that The Crying Game was about sexuality only to the extent that it was about everything else that it was about. Captation, friendship across enemy lines, a lover's grief, unwelcome revenants from the past, hot and cool approaches to protest and subversion... The Crying Game didn't deny or derealize queer sexuality, but nor did it divorce sexuality from a bigger, gnarlier knot of human problems, and this, for me, was its Big Twist. As little as I had let myself really think about homosexuality, I had thought even less about terrorism and guilt and secret honor, and even less than that about how sexuality could bleed through, in, around, and as those other ideas. Similarly, as floored as I was by Jaye Davidson's performance as Dil—not his casting but his performance—and as therefore aggrieved as I was by Oscar's preference of Gene Hackman, I also clocked Adrian Dunbar's searing indignation, Stephen Rea's recessive sadness, Miranda Richardson's shifting web of motivations, and Jim Broadbent's unobtrusive whimsy as the barman. The Crying Game, just as much as Howards End the same year, was my introduction to great character acting; understandably, it took another year or two for me to recognize that people outside of Britain knew how to do this.

When I watch the film now, I am conscious of an enormous reversal in my relation to it. At times, the mystery of Dil seems actively to impede the flow and clarity of the picture, and a few of her boozy, pill-popping, floridly bruised, bondage-inflected episodes near the end feel none too advanced from Celluloid Closet tropes. The innuendoes of admiration and genital contact in the opening scenes between Rea and Forest Whitaker are much too obviously suggestive of later turns, although it's still a powerfully understated study in tacit, almost illicit affinity between hostage and patrol. Anne Dudley's score is as impressively Hitchcockian as Jordan's writing, and even if the screenplay, which I remembered as such a sinuous exercise in subtle connections, now feels a little bullish and schematic, I'm still duly impressed by the performances and by Jordan's success in getting his own head into such territory in 1992, much less that of his rapt global audience.

#63: The Baby of Mâcon and  The Pillow Book
Mâcon (UK, 1993; dir. Peter Greenaway; cin. Sacha Vierny; with Julia Ormond, Jonathan Lacey, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Stone, Nils Dorando, Don Henderson, Celia Gregory, Diana Van Kolck, Jessica Hynes, Kathryn Hunter, Gabrielle Reidy, Jan Sepers)

Pillow (UK/Japan, 1996; dir. Peter Greenaway; cin. Sacha Vierny; with Vivian Wu, Yoshi Oida, Ewan McGregor, Ken Ogata, Hideko Yoshida, Judy Ongg, Ken Mitsuishi, Yutaka Honda)
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I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that Peter Greenaway is not the child of two humans, but the offspring of a building and a painting, born on the hottest day of the year in some very, very chilly place. His cinema might be the most immediately identifiable of any English-language director, and maybe of any director, period: he doesn't seem to have seen or cared about the work of other filmmakers so much as he has traveled the world to behold giant plinths and catafalques, leafed through Da Vinci's notebooks and Euclidean proofs, and made the best of a poor situation, committing his imaginary worlds to film because it's the only form that anyone is willing to subsidize. Effectively, he's been making CD-ROMs since the days when people still bought music on cassette tapes. His images dissolve into and hyperlink to each other, massive as all creation when they aren't cropped and subdivided into defiantly atypical aspect ratios. Art, math, money, and frank sexuality intersect in his movies, just like on the internet—just like everywhere, really—except that with Greenaway at the helm, this collision of humanity's great passions winds up looking like nothing any other person would ever conceive, and perhaps not like anything that any other person would ever want to see. Greenaway leaves a lot of moviegoers cold, and conversely, some of his most ardent supporters are curators, academics, and high-cultural separatists who are rarely caught in any screening venue where popcorn has ever been sold. I almost walked out of the impeccably mounted and ferociously acted The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, whose sour misanthropy seems aimed not just against people but against movies themselves. The Belly of an Architect might have been a better intro, 8˝ Women might have been better consigned to the dustbin of stunted ideas, and as for Prospero's Books, though I'm now quite taken with its multi-mediated museum of Elizabethan idioms, it didn't really impress me until my third or fourth try.

Despite this spotty track record, Greenaway is a director who interests me tremendously; I'm not easily put off by someone who will work this hard to make such exquisitely eccentric objects, alternately impenetrable and rife with insinuations. Twice, his epic blends of the epicurean and the rectilinear have produced something that really floored me. Go figure, then, that my favorite of Greenaway's movies, The Baby of Mâcon, is the one that's still illegal in the United States, presumably because it's the one that comes close in its esoteric way to saying something that the United States needs to hear. Julia Ormond, happening upon a director even frostier than she is, comes wickedly alive as a hot-blooded French woman in a 17th-century village beset by famine, plague, and fallow fields. The only sign of new life in Mâcon is the pristinely beautiful baby that springs, incongruously, from Ormond's obese and haggard mother; boldly braiding her own self-interest into the town's thirst for a positive omen, she claims the flaxen-haired infant as her own virgin birth, and then seduces the local bishop's icily skeptical son (Ralph Fiennes) with the brazen magnificence of her lie and the voluptuous offering of her body. Every main character is paradoxically addicted to the ideal of holiness and the spark of carnality, leading to the sorts of perverse hypocrisies and self-gratifications that, in Greenaway's films, always get you killed in an especially macabre way. If anything, The Baby of Mâcon is even more lavishly mounted than most Greenaway pageants, and even more Artaudian in its sickening climax of violence. By staging the film as a Jacobean revenge drama—Sacha Vierny's camera glides fluidly but anxiously through the tense action, the offstage grumblings, and the murmuring audience of puffy aristocrats and smudgy commoners—Greenaway poses questions about voyeurism and cruelty that encompass both his viewers and himself, further layering the implications of this scary horror-melodrama about fundamentalism, superstition, jealousy, and prurience.

After the international PR disaster of The Baby of Mâcon, Greenaway's next film was the luxuriously synesthaesiac The Pillow Book, an absolute corker of a 90-minute movie that unfortunately continues for 45 more minutes, working hard in the process to numb and obliterate everything that is almost impossibly gorgeous in the preceding material. Vivian Wu plays Nagiko, a haughty Japanese model with an insatiable yearning for having calligraphy painted on her skin. Wu is a shrilly maladroit presence, and the premise wouldn't work at all if it weren't realized in such sinuous detail, but so it is. The Pillow Book lists two directors of photography, three production designers, four costume designers, and two calligraphers in the opening credits, and indeed, the movie comes closer than any other to constituting its own elaborate, absorbing museum—one where you're encouraged to sniff and caress the artwork, to strip the clothes off the models, to run the paint along your tongue like it's a spice. This unparalleled mise-en-scène, the creatively embedded frames, and the arresting sonic mix of Japanese pop, monastic chants, and avant-garde rock together yield a new kind of movie, a three- and almost four-dimensional environment. Customary film grammar hardly accounts for how the movie works, either when it's scoring or when it's flailing, and if its structural repetitions ultimately grow a bit tedious, its fearless peculiarity and almost aphrodisiac blend of skin, music, and curvaceous lettering make it worth digesting in multiple doses, even if they're small ones.

#64: Best in Show
(USA, 2000; dir. Christopher Guest; cin. Roberto Schaefer; with Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Christopher Guest, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Fred Willard, Jim Piddock, Bob Balaban, Don Lake, Ed Begley, Jr.)
IMDb // My Full Review

Sometimes you see a movie in the theater and you like it okay, but you wouldn't consider seeing it twice, except that your friend hasn't seen it yet and you're happy to go along. For whatever reason, you like it better and laugh much harder than you did the first time. Then you actively anticipate the video or DVD release, more avidly than you are awaiting movies that you enjoyed or admired much more. Then you watch the movie repeatedly, incessantly—why does it keep getting funnier? In ten years, I've had this experience twice, the first time with Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, and then with Christopher Guest's Best in Show. How do you account for humor, even your own taste in it, your own laughter? I have no idea how I sat through my first screening of Mars Attacks! and only laughed once—and that because Sarah Jessica Parker's chihuahua wouldn't stop barking at Michael J. Fox over breakfast. I am, apparently, a groundling. Nor can I say anything illuminating or precise about why I roar through that movie now, why the simple, never-changing "ack ack" of the aliens is enough to set me off.

The case of Best in Show is even odder to me, because it doesn't, like Burton's film, require any stylistic acclimation, and its comedy emerges much more through conventional means like one-liners and parodic personalities than, as in the Burton, through camp reenactment and sustained eccentricity. I read my original review of Best in Show now and, though I still wonder about the film's allegiance to mockumentary and am well aware of the jokes that don't score, I can't figure out what the hell I was being so stingy about. I probably quote Best in Show more often than any other movie I've seen, save three or four, but you wouldn't know it from my frugal little write-up. But I don't think I was just being a stick-in-the-mud. I am not a flip-flopper, though I might occasionally be blind and deaf. I can't believe how many of my favorite moments I didn't fully appreciate or even notice until the third or fourth go-round, like when John Michael Higgins' Scott looks at Jane Lynch's desperately primped dog handler Christy Cummings and expertly sizes her up as looking "like a cocktail waitress on an oil rig," or Higgins and Michael McKean having the world's most politely submerged argument about over-packing a suitcase, or Catherine O'Hara's perplexed look at husband Eugene Levy when he tries to avert a credit-card disaster by paying with traveler's checks, even though they don't have any.

But most of what I love about the movie are the jokes I liked to begin with, which have proven uncannily memorable, and bizarrely applicable in more situations than you'd think, and wonderfully convivial, too, because everyone seems to love this movie. Jennifer Coolidge's ditzy deadpan is just as funny when she says something demented ("So I'm just waiting, until I get another message...from myself" or "Those act as flippers") as when she runs rough-shod over the feelings of her eventual lover, Christy, of whose privately owned, proudly assembled kennel she sharply reminisces, "It was a shitbox." On repeat viewings, you learn how to live with the extreme stress inducements of Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, and you can simply enjoy their brilliance at ratcheting up the neurotic hysteria. The two words "Busy Bee" can make me lose it in public places, thinking about Posey's fearsome dressing-down of Ed Begley Jr.'s head concierge as well as the toy store employee, and of the wild swoops of her caftans when she erupts into one of her fits, and of how she alternates being pressure-cooked inside a mean helmet of hair and tying it back with a head scarf because even her hair drives her crazy. Fred Willard is more than inspired as the fatuous commentator at the dog show, but the more you watch, you further appreciate Jim Piddock's comparable knack at playing the slow burn of the affronted expert. Levy and O'Hara's couplehood isn't quite as rich as in A Mighty Wind, burdened as they are with that laborious business of her multiple ex-boyfriends, but I'll still watch O'Hara do anything, and her costume designs are terrific, and the sweetness in their rapport serves the movie eautifully. Improv comedians could learn quite a bit from this movie, including how not to flee from feeling.

Oh, and the best dog wins. Isn't that a peach?

#65: Female Perversions
(USA, 1996; dir. Susan Streitfeld; cin. Teresa Medina; with Tilda Swinton, Amy Madigan, Karen Sillas, Dale Shuger, Frances Fisher, Laila Robbins, Clancy Brown, Paulina Porizkova, Marcia Cross)
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In a just world, not to mention an extremely entertaining one, Susan Streitfeld's Female Perversions would hold the utopian potential to unite two truly disparate audiences: first, the academic eggheads who know that the movie, virtually alone in the modern cinema, is a fictionalized adaptation of a monograph of psychoanalytic literary theory, and second, the swells of tabloid-chasers and thrill-seekers ushered toward the movie by the title alone. It would be easy, and probably right, to say that Female Perversions is unlikely to match the expectations of either audience, but I think it's more interesting to consider how the movie actually rewards them both, at least partially. Scholastic theory on gender and sexuality can sometimes be so desiccated of the juices and shivers and intimate, saucy introspection through which sex is actually lived and breathed; on the other hand, standard-issue erotic thrillers and sexploitation films are often bizarrely disarmed of any guiding concept of what actually is sexy, or of what actually inhibits sex, or rhymes with it, or assumes its value when sex itself isn't available or, for whatever reason, desired on its own terms. Female Perversions, not just because it melds Freudian archetypes and fleshy, femmey spectacle, possesses a genuinely erotic flavor. It has the sexiest thing a movie can have: a distinct point of view, persuasively showing us what this director, or at least this film, considers titillating, pedestrian, shameful, furtive, funny.

Tilda Swinton stars as a hotshot lawyer named Eve. Right off the bat, you can tell that subtlety isn't the movie's elected forte, and yet, why and how Swinton's character is an "Eve" is hard to pin down. A rising star on the legal circuit with a prestigious judgeship all but guaranteed to come her way, she embodies a mix of professional competence and self-alienation that isn't exactly unfamiliar—don't all professional women in American movies eventually realize that they don't know who they are?—and yet, because she's played by Swinton, Eve's unraveling doesn't feel conventional. Instead, it's a strangely out-of-body experience, navigated by the only Brechtian actress working in modern film, whose masklike and yet disarmingly lucid face always works in ironic tandem with her stiffly elegant body. Surrounding Swinton are a clutch of other women who were case studies and paragons in Dr. Louise J. Kaplan's original book (full title: Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary), and whom the screenplay by director Streitfeld and co-writer Julie Hébert determinedly maroon somewhere between being characters and ciphers. Amy Madigan, a coiled and arrestingly spiteful actress, has her finest hour here as Madeleine, the black-sheep sister of Swinton's powerful up-and-comer. Madigan shoplifts a silk scarf with a memorable glower, she all but deliberately sabotages her sister's professional coronation, and she manages the neat trick of constantly messing everything up for everyone in the movie (including for herself) without sacrificing the audience's interest. Frances Fisher blowzes around as a good-time girl, Laila Robins is tearful as a dressmaker in a trailer, Paulina Porizkova strides through her scenes as an immaculately tailored rival of Swinton's, and Karen Sillas—an underrated and little-remembered presence from Tom Noonan's What Happened Was... and some Hal Hartley films—stands toe-to-toe with Swinton as one of two lovers whom the bisexual Eve keeps stringing along. Marcia Cross puts in a mysterious cameo, basically the same shot repeated several times, as Swinton and Madigan's abused mother, and an unknown, almost androgynous waif named Dale Shuger slides even more slivers of unease beneath your skin as Edwina, a teenaged girl who flees from all the parodic female visions around her, retreating into an intensely private life of scarring her flesh and burying the pads and tissues stained with her ovulated blood.

The plot uniting all of this is never Female Perversions' strongest hook, and neither the final act of the picture nor the embedded flashbacks and dream-visions have the strange, arresting depth of the scenes where the characters just orbit and strut around each other, like Caryl Churchill characters transported to the American Southwest: indolent, almost, yet full of curiosity-sparking contradictions. The production design, particularly in Eve's coldly modernist office and in the most Kubrickian lingerie boutique you'll ever see, amplifies our confusion about where the movie is really happening: is this story all on the surface, nothing more than the sum of its aggressively allegorical symbols, or does some threshold of revelation await us beneath all the layers of intentional affectation? Female Perversions plays like some mathematical proof you keep wracking your brain against, trying to derive the absolute value of Woman, or maybe even of Gender. (The movie's tagline read, "It's all about power," and fans of Butler or Foucault will eat it up like double-chocolate mousse.) Happily, the cul-de-sacs and errant stabs at solution are actually more rewarding than the half-hearted "explanations" behind all of this theatre. Meanwhile, any drama that can boast three or four truly interesting women, and cast such peculiar and palpably brainy actresses in the roles, is not a gift to question. In fact, the film radiates an almost totemic mystique, no less so because it has become rather hard to find, and tends to pop up in unexpected places: like, say, the "Special Interest" Shelf at BestBuy, better known for stocking the onanistic oeuvres of Traci Lords. Porizkova, a presence for only two short scenes, lounges around in bedsheets on the box art, from which Swinton is entirely erased, and you don't have to look hard to find Zalman King's name among the co-producers. But as they say, good things come in smutty packages.

#66: Magnolia
(USA, 1999; dir. Paul Thomas Anderson; cin. Robert Elswit; with John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Tom Cruise, Melora Walters, Jeremy Blackman, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, April Grace, Julianne Moore, Melinda Dillon, Michael Bowen, Alfred Molina, Eileen Ryan, Felicity Huffman, Luis Guzmán, Henry Gibson, Cleo King, Craig Kvinsland, Ricky Jay, Michael Murphy, Don McManus, Thomas Jane)
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One of my favorite moments at the movies happens when the lights go down and, whether through electronics or pulleys or some other device, the margins of the screen are adjusted to suit the aspect ratio of the film. This instant, disappointingly pre-empted whenever the screen is sized before our arrival, is most titillating when the panels or curtains keep moving, moving, moving past the point of expectation, exhilarating the still-blank screen with the pure, implied scope of what is about to come. Like it was yesterday, I remember the side-panels at Magnolia parting so widely they almost didn't quit, as though making room for a locomotive or a stampede or a Biblical exodus.

Hurl a stone in a contemporary movieplex and you're bound to hit some screen where a passel or fleet of Los Angelenos fumble their way toward self-consciousness, corraled by the freeways into smaller and smaller circles until we realize that they all already know each other. But Magnolia, in contrast to most of these movies, barely bothers to fix its locale as a worldly place, a place of real, waking lives. Magnolia, as wide and colorful as someone's bursting imagination, knocks its fluorescent scenes of kilowatted personal crises against one another, lighting faces so brightly that they pool with black shadows even bigger than personality, listing and tracking through hallways and suites and offices and conference rooms until the movie feels like a series of aftershocks. But they aren't tectonic aftershocks. They are psychic reverberations, prodigious ones, even in a movie whose off-kilter score, outsized characters, and rudimentary plot conflicts abolish any sense of realism. Is it too much to say the film derealizes psychology, even as it spelunks straight downward into its grottiest crevices—fathers who menace their daughters, sons who abjure their fathers, women trying to scale some terrible epiphanies just as they are dawning? Somehow, Anderson's baton-twirling virtuosity with his camera evaporates even more irony than it introduces, since the characters are, almost universally, experiencing their lives just as floridly as the film portrays them. Jason Robards' canker of angry loneliness, Julianne Moore's centrifugal self-dispersal, April Grace's surgical defrocking of Tom Cruise's panther pride (where is she now, when we most need her?), Jeremy Blackman's suffocation within his absorbent genius, Melinda Dillon's bitter medicine—these are all delectably reckless acting turns, a fine vintage of supporting performances packed into one robust buffet. But there's an idea inside all of this rococo reaching, because at least as I experience the movie, its tragic aspirations only work because of how, in the film's relentlessly forward and sideways velocity, all of the most extreme emotional states get windshield-wipered by all the other ones. No one's breakdown stands in much relief from anyone else's, and California, America, the now, they all become a pop-art collage of interchangeable secrets and miseries—the source, too, of all the vividness and life in the movie, so we're never less than thankful for them. Anderson doesn't add these figures into any polemical sum, just one film's picture of the way things are, possessed of rather less variety than the sprawling cast and shifting style imply. Amidst all of this, the song (you know) and the frogs (you know) feel much less incongruous than the movie's two hints of connection: a stammering policeman's date with an addict and, even more miraculously, a relay of awkward telephone calls that succeeds against all odds at locating the person it seeks. Amazingly, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, two congenital over-actors, have finally found this least likely of movies in which to rein it all in and offer compelling, affecting snapshots of the normal. Threshold of revelation!

It's the nature of the beast that Magnolia teeters too far in some directions: young Stanley's soliloquy of protest is one too many, and a bit much for the mouth of a babe; Reilly's procedural mishap with his gun just sits inert on the screen, haphazardly slung together; and William H. Macy's scenes are aggravatingly garish in text and image. But who cares, compared to all the goodies tucked around the movie in unexpected cracks and corners: Cleo King's insolence and Felicity Huffman's observant invisibility, a great performance from some invisible actress who convinces Frank T.J. Mackey to contact his father, the hilarious production design of the What Do Kids Know? quiz show, the comic-book blue of Tom Cruise's black hair, Macy being dogged by the same truncated pop song, the epidemic rash of dissolves into Robards' poisoned lungs, the sound of toads hitting pavement, the wry question "Do you still want the peanut butter, cigarettes, and bread?", and every single cut that joins a symmetrical shot with some violence against balance, often a chiaroscuro close-up pushing against the edge of that wide, wide frame. I liked Anderson's Boogie Nights but have been blithely indifferent to any impulse to re-see it; I savored the sound and technique of Punch-Drunk Love, but I admit to having craved a more populated party; I have owned Hard Eight on second-hand VHS for almost five years and still haven't popped it in. But Magnolia seduces, pulls, lures me in, time and again, as though it has some gravitational pull. Flamboyant characters make their way through a world that is and isn't ours, and I can't stop watching.

#67: Mask
(USA, 1985; dir. Peter Bogdanovich; cin. Laszlo Kovacs; with Eric Stoltz, Cher, Sam Elliott, Laura Dern, Richard Dysart, Estelle Getty, Lawrence Monoson, Dennis Burkley, Harry Carey, Jr.)

Mask makes me cry, extravagantly, every time I watch it. If you've ever seen a photograph of Iguazu Falls or beheld a tropical monsoon, you have some idea what my face looks like by the end of Mask, and the funny thing about this is that I always expect that this time, the movie won't work, that I won't be so affected. I first saw Mask in 1986, when it debuted on HBO, and perhaps the fact that I so associate the movie with my being young and first discovering my attraction to the movies is the reason why I always underestimate it, why I always expect its power to diminish over time. Plenty of films became personal touchstones and guilty pleasures in the intervening years, but whereas Steel Magnolias and Dances with Wolves and Ghost feel so antique to me now—enjoyable, but emblematic mostly of their time and place in my life—Mask doesn't subside.

Nothing about Mask is ostentatious, which is particularly remarkable given that it draws on so many tropes that typically embroil Hollywood productions in a tar-pit of tonal trouble: a socially ostracized protagonist, a lower-working-class milieu, a female lead who is "brassy" and "no-nonsense," explorations of teen romance and adult alcoholism, necessarily conspicuous prosthetic make-up, and a foretold trajectory into early death. Somehow, despite the boneyard of palpably phony movies that ventured into these same territories—several of them major Oscar winners—Mask feels true and naturalistic, give or take the bathetic accents of a mute acquaintance who achieves language at a climactic moment. Eric Stoltz and Cher, as the cranially disfigured Rocky Dennis and the mother who both champions him and cuts him zero slack, are such confident and open performers that they forbid the film from drifting into histrionics. Their house is believable. Their quarrels are believable. One of Mask's quiet but marvelous scenes follows Stoltz's Rocky as he follows his mom around the house, reciting to her a poem he has written in school, and for which he has been praised. It sure doesn't hurt that the poem, written by the real Rocky Dennis, is, like much of the movie, a marvelously minimalist piece of work—unforgettable, I suspect, to anyone who's seen the movie. What's most memorable about the scene, though, is how Cher seems so casually indifferent to the poem and to her son, and how Stoltz keeps reciting as though her evident preoccupation doesn't bother him. A simple scenario, played out in daily lives all the time, but seldom realized on-screen, particularly given the usual Hollywood stranglehold that characters must at all times be either 100% appealing or, temporarily, 100% unappealing, at which point the film's job is to strenuously redeem them. Here, too, Mask is modestly exceptional: when Rusty and Rocky fight, their reconciliations are not perfect; Cher's embodiment of brave, protective motherhood stays in the same general temperature range as her scenes of negligent and cruel motherhood; and as the film progresses and martyrdom approaches, Rocky actually becomes less easily "likable," his disappointments and frustrations souring his personality in a wholly plausible way.

Laszlo Kovacs's widescreen photography ensures that Mask never feels less than cinematic, but its intimacy and recognizability as an almost mundane human story, limned and cruelly truncated by one extraordinary obstacle, make it feel like something happening in your own neighbor's house, or in your own. Rocky Dennis' cranial deformity is never incidental to Mask, but rather than treating his condition as a relentless and limiting point of focus, the filmmakers commit to characterizing his life with an empathy and humility that wondrously embrace everything else in the movie, too. And what a terrific final tribute to Rocky: to have his life depicted in such a way that his clever, moody, compassionate ordinariness, and not his otherness, is the essence of his story.

#68: Pickpocket
(France, 1959; dir. Robert Bresson; cin. Léonce-Henri Burel; with Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pélégri, Pierre Laymarie, Kassagi, Dolly Scal, César Gattegno, Pierre Étaix)

Nobody is born knowing anything, and often it matters when and where, and from whom or from what, you learn. I wouldn't normally embark with this platitude, in describing a film that keeps dodging platitudes even as it plays as a sort of sad Christian homily. But Pickpocket, which I first saw in college, was my introduction to the concept that a filmmaker could generate meaning from visual habits, from regulations of point of view—specifically, in this case, from the continual, isolated framings of hands as freestanding objects, as sensual artifacts, as criminal means, as emblems of hunger or expectation (the open palm), of aloofness or concealment (the hand behind the back, the fist in the pocket), of communion with others (the held hand, the caressing palm). Having had my heart won over to the cinema by Jane Campion's Piano, you'd think I would have thought more about hands and the grammars of the close-up, but The Piano was my overwhelming introduction to almost everything possible and medium-specific in the cinema, and the lure of impassioned, romantic, psychological narrative seemed to dictate or supercede almost everything else in the movie, save the music. Bresson and Pickpocket were temperamentally opposite, less oceanic, more teacherly. Though I'd never have guessed from Pickpocket that Bresson was regarded by many as an austere, even an ascetic filmmaker—the frissons of touch and of cunning and of mysterious couplings is thrilling, stiffly sexy, in Pickpocket—his film offered a stern epiphany to the bookworm so recently reborn as a film lover. You can start from the image. You can work outward from the hand, the brow, the closeup, the pocketbook, the clasp, the coat, the newspaper, the stairwell, the baseboard, the attic, the neighbor, the edit, the ellipsis, the music, and from there you can access the moral, the metaphysical, the cinematic. This is as true for the filmmaker as for the observer. You can film this way, or you can watch this way, though the experience is most remarkable when both of you are working in tandem. Pickpocket has a story, and offers itself easily to the story-seeking audience, but the story nonetheless bows before the visual, sonic, and rhythmic life of the film, rather than the other way around.

These lessons, gorgeously and cryptically epigrammed in Bresson's short, famous book Notes on the Cinematographer, are by now so endemic to the way I think about movies that I often take them for granted. But watching Pickpocket, even spying it on my DVD shelf, nestled between Odds Against Tomorrow and Room at the Top (my discs are currently organized chronologically, then alphabetically within each year), is an instant reminder of how new this perspective on movies once was to me, and how new it was, too, to the 1959 audiences who trilled along giddily to the sexier, simultaneous innovations of Breathless, and who slipped right in to the new generation's humanism of the same year's 400 Blows, but who mostly didn't cotton to Pickpocket right away. To revisit the Criterion DVD is to recognize at once what an enigmatic and contradictory text this always was, and still remains. James Quandt recites on the commentary track the consensus line on the film's devout spirituality, while Gary Indiana rages in the liner notes about the fundamental "uselessness of Christian faith" in Pickpocket and in most Bresson, and about the palpable queerness of this putatively Catholic film. Paul Schrader introduces us to the movie as a sanctified object while two French journalists of the intelligentsia, smug with the air of having seen and "gotten" the movie, quiz the laconic Bresson about the odd and inhospitable qualities of what he has made, as though they doubt it will ever mean much to anyone. The Criterion packaging itself testifies to the film's august status, like a page of scripture, or a pietà, or a Tolstoy novella (one of which Bresson later filmed as L'Argent). But then Kassagi, the androgynous, Genetian, real-life thief from the movie pops up in French television footage, plying his "magic," bilking his audience, and demonstrating their hopeless gullibility—possibly ours as well. Bresson will later inherit a reputation for genius. Kassagi, meanwhile, will proceed to hang outside cinemas and inside cafés, nicking the purses and billfolds of absent-minded mandarins who see Bresson's movies and ponder their vaporous meanings. Pickpocket: a numinous essay on crime and also a how-to manual for criminals, a whispered reminder that while you're laudably thinking lofty thoughts, while you're laudably watching the world and its fascinations (like those distracted crowds at the two offscreen horse-races), someone is behind you, taking what's yours, poking at what you are, passing like a grey cloud.

Pickpocket is a great crime movie, because it shows us vivid, unusual, and totally unglamorous things about crime. Its compulsiveness. Its choreography, as in those brilliant shots and scenes when Michel and Kassagi and the occasional accomplice keep wallets bobbing around like badminton birdies, or like Ophuls' earrings. Above all, its nervous, pilly loneliness. Guilt doesn't crash down on Michel like a stone ceiling or a penal code; the film doesn't scream or wail or exaggerate. Guilt swims through Michel like a rogue bubble in his blood. Whenever the camera moves unexpectedly, or Martin LaSalle's pupils dilate in their hard, stony way, or the lighting suddenly picks up the damp cracks in Michel's bedroom walls or the cheapness of his clothing, Pickpocket is genuinely unsettling. His restiveness spreads to us; sometimes we feel it more than he appears to. Maybe he just accepts it more fully than we do. The movie is brilliant at upsetting expectations, as in the arrhythmic, inscrutable courtship between Michel and true-hearted Jeanne, his mother's feline neighbor, or in the blink-and-you-miss-it two-year gap in the narrative continuity, or in the juxtaposition of Lully's sublime 17th-century music with this masterfully rendered but essentially grotty 20th-century parable. "I'll confess everything, but then I'll take it all back," says Michel from his jail cell at one pivotal moment, though Pickpocket's editing and the hiccups in its script have a way of making every moment feel pivotal. "I'll make it hard for them," he seethes, but not in a mustache-twirling way. You wouldn't find that in a Bresson film, even though Pickpocket does seem to give us a lot, as taut and plainspoken as prayer, and then it rescinds our first impressions, takes away our sense of comprehension, through a hundred tiny movements and flits of resonance. I loved Pickpocket on sight. I'm preoccupied with not wanting to make it sound "difficult," except in the way it gestates, growing difficult on reflection, multiplying its own possibilities, defying the succinctness of its 75 minutes. It drops you in a new, dazzling starting space: film can be anything. Film can leap off any object, with or without an orienting story, and can vault from there to the ethical, the philosophical, the beautiful, the corrupt. Pickpocket begins where few films ever arrive. But how do you know where you are? What do you make of it? That's up to you.

#69: Dream of Light (El Sol del Membrillo)
(Spain, 1991; dir. Victor Erice; cin. Javier Aguirresarobe and Angel Luis Fernández; with Antonio López García)

My friend and comrade in cinephilia Tim Robey treasures the film Vanya on 42nd Street, naming it as a personal favorite though he has only seen it once—in part, it seems, because he has only seen it once, or even more specifically, because it imbues its viewers with an impulse to see it only once, to savor it as a memory rather than as a living-place or a possession. I can easily see how the empyrean theatricality of Vanya, ranked at #72 on this very list, could engender this kind of self-imposed and almost sacralizing distance, which I take to be a kind of loyalty, and a recognition of those precious instants when cinema shines its light on the magic essence of some other art form. A different film, Victor Erice's Dream of Light, is my own touchstone for this kind of closely harbored adoration. Like Vanya it offers an awe-inspiring marriage between two arts, and does so with such absolute humility and such expert, inviting simplicity that you trust and absorb it immediately. The corroboration of further viewings feels unnecessary, perhaps even undesirable.

Dream of Light is a Spanish film. Its original title, El Sol del Membrillo, translates more directly as "The Sun of the Quince Tree," and several prints name the film as The Quince Tree Sun. Only in America, as far as I know, was the film released as Dream of Light, and this confusion over titles both augments and reflects how elusive and ephemeral the movie is. Tracking it down, looking it up, even invoking it in conversation is a serpentine process, a series of choices that circle the film instead of leading right to it. The subject of the film, also deceptively simple, is the languid, patient process by which the painter Antonio López Garcia commits the image of a quince tree to his canvas. The process of painting, the interplay it requires between eye and mind, its status as a dynamic rather than a static art, was never really clear to me before I saw this movie. That López Garcia labors over a still-life of a tree, not a Pollock eruption or a Bacon abjection or a series of Van Gogh swirls, only enhances the revelation. His eye measures the tree and its bounty of leaves and fruit each hour of each day, so attentively that the viewer gradually shares in this observant acuity, if only for 135 minutes, and with greater and greater admiration for how López Garcia, aided by mundane tools and scrupulous geometrics, translates such seeing into a new, existing object. At least cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who achieved international fame a decade later with The Others and Talk to Her, has got the jump on us here, judging and rendering López Garcia's world with a comparable grace and luminescence.

Happily, and credibly, López Garcia's painstaking devotions to both his subject and his art are not conveyed as something that excludes him from the group. His days percolate with dialogues—with his wife, with visiting friends, with fellow artists, with workers helping to renovate the house behind which he paints. Dream of Light explodes the romantic myth of the solitary artist with zero fuss or fireworks, even as it makes transparent how inward, idiosyncratic, and unlinguistic the work of the painter is. Positioned as one among many kinds of laborer, as one amid a slightly ragtag but genial and hospitable community of talkers, watchers, and creators, López Garcia emerges more fully as a character than do the protagonists of almost any fiction films or documentaries. The fact that Dream of Light blurs that distinction, too, evaporating its relevance almost from the first scene, is another of the major coups of this peerlessly modest but truly singular movie. When I reminisce about Dream of Light, I get so enamored of what I remember (perhaps even wrongly so!) that I feel briefly compelled to seek it out, to watch it immediately and regularly, and to learn how much more it surely contains and reveals. But something keeps me from doing this, and for now, I'll keep listening to that something. But I hope you won't. At least once.

#70: Claudine
(USA, 1974; dir. John Berry; cin. Gayne Rescher; with Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Tamu Blackwell, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, David Kruger, Yvette Curtis, Eric Jones, Socorro Stephens, Adam Wade, Roxie Roker, Elisa Loti)

Praising American movies of the 1970s is like praising British literature of the 1920s. Who but the sourest contrarian could possibly dissent? What would be the point? And yet, the most familiar versions of that decade's litany of crown jewels—Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, the Godfathers, Mean Streets, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, The Conversation, The Parallax View, Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Network, All the President's Men, The Deer Hunter, Days of Heaven, Apocalypse Now—surely are a white and boy-clubby lot. (Surprise!) All the more reason why I wish that John Berry's funny and lusty and pertly political Claudine were more widely celebrated. Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, both of them instantly addictive, are cast as a sort of Loren and Mastroianni of the Harlem walk-ups. She's a housemaid and he's a trash-collector, but unlike the steaming heaps of movies where these roles would go utterly unquestioned for African-American actors, even major stars like Carroll and Jones, Claudine is all about how poverty, even where it's pervasive, denaturalizes life—though I rush to add, this is not some kind of abstruse thesis or clinician's pronouncement. Claudine is bawdily, turbulently down in the trenches, palpably at home in closet-sized kitchens and shit jobs and impossible day-to-day predicaments, against which the film and the characters push with spitfire aplomb.

The first shot of the film finds Claudine and her bumptious brood crossing a street, an image that will repeat at the film's conclusion with only one major change, which is either momentous or negligible depending on whether you favor a personal or a structural view of the film—an impossible choice, everywhere precluded. Claudine and Roop meet at work, though he works for the city and she for a family, and so nothing happening between them is happening on their own turf. Work keeps her from arriving on time to their first date, which begins in her own home, where she has to hide appliances and amenities from the surveilling eye of the Welfare Office case worker, who hears about Roop from Claudine's neighbors, whom we never meet because she never has any time to interact with them, because she's off working the job that the case worker also mustn't discover, in order to feed the kids who phone her incessantly on her first night in Roop's bedroom, which is no less permeable to espionage and intrusion than Claudine's bustling pad. Yes, Claudine's life is an exhausting, colorful, infuriating run-on. She doesn't keep this all in balance so much as she bends and flexes impressively to hit back as many of the balls as she can, and just as impressively throws her racket and stomps her foot when she knows she's losing a set. Meanwhile, she can't get away from her kids when she wants to but also can't find them when she wants to. Her eldest son Charles is absorbing himself in militant youth politics that the film ribs without dismissing. He swears that if Claudine really loved him, she would have killed him, in the manner of murderously protective slave mothers about whom he has heard, and yet his garbled, comically judgmental anger stems from evident and ubiquitous sources. Her eldest daughter Charlene all but draws knives on Roop when he comes a'courting, but later finds herself tearfully defending the achievements and battered honor of black men. Her unplanned pregnancy combined with her sudden encomiums to Great Negroes of the Past riles Claudine to majestic, literally violent fury: "I guess it's a shame you didn't get knocked up by Frederick Douglass!" is pretty hard to beat as sassy, pointed, and side-splitting maternal smackdowns go, but the scene is still upsetting, because Claudine is no heroine, and her daughter is clearly suffering. Her mother is quite obviously swatting away at the younger version of herself who bore Charlene, and both women know it.

The film switches tones and registers on a dime, over and over and over again, but what's more impressive is how often it avoids switching by playing so many tones at once. Its candor in matters social, sexual, and political, just like its expressively bright color palette, is like an icy splash of river water, even though the film is as inveterately urban as a Spike Lee joint, and defiantly proud of its own dirt. Berry and cinematographer Gayne Rescher (Rachel, Rachel, A Face in the Crowd use long lenses and a 4:3 aspect ratio to keep the spaces appropriately crowded but the action deep and funny; whatever is going on in the forefront of a shot, one or two or four of Claudine's kids are inevitably up to something in the background. Claudine is no directorial calling-card like the same year's duo of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and A Woman under the Influence, but it's a much more consistent picture than the Scorsese and almost certainly the most widely relatable of the lot, no matter how refreshingly it insists on the particularity of post-Panther, working-class, upper-100s black life. Simple devices like the jangling beads in an apartment doorframe, a mouse named Millhouse who keeps fucking up a nighttime rendezvous, and the accelerated editing that hurtles us through all the anger and soreness and farcical whoop-dee-doo count for a lot in a movie like Claudine. If it isn't a technical groundbreaker, it's a hell of a good time and a more than sturdy piece of work, easy to underrate. Erin Brockovich is the only film that comes to mind that lets its heroine be so brassy and so hand-to-mouth and so prideful at the same time, and ensures that you not only love her but that you get her problems. And Claudine's problems are even less typical for popular cinema to touch, much less to treat as genuine braids of personal and political experience, so it's even more of a feat and a high that the movie dives in so boldly, and with such fasten-your-seatbelts panache.

James Earl Jones upends his typical typecasting with a cheeky, sexy turn as Roop, and the juvenile cast is one of the best I've ever seen, especially volatile, observant, and genuinely torn Tamu Blackwell as Charlene. But of course it's Carroll who reigns over this movie, cocking her brows and lashing her tongue against a world of statutory double-standards and black comedy (pun intended). She's a tornado of sweetness and ire, craving romance and reliable help in equal doses, aghast that her own children view her 36 years of age as the thick of senior-citizenry. The magic of her performance, and of the film, is that with each new scene, as a new and specific hurdle tosses itself into Claudine's path, we see some new facet of this woman's resilience, sometimes ornery and sometimes humorous, sometimes admirable and sometimes not, and none of them bear the face of cliché.

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