#71: Eraserhead
(USA, 1977; dir. David Lynch; cin. Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes)
IMDb

I conjectured further down on this list that Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man would be the hardest entry to write about, but having now arrived at Eraserhead, David Lynch's roomy and surreal yet utterly cohesive debut feature, I realize that I was wrong. How many times has a David Lynch movie proved somebody wrong? He proved beyond question, and to the chagrin of many more timid artists, that you can hop from a first feature this singularly bizarre to the basically conventional Elephant Man, a film that remains distinctive and troublingly irreal even as it parlays so comfortably into narrative paradigms and popular favor. That you can reframe comfy, Eisenhower-era iconography within the savage, huffing, sadomasochistic framework of Blue Velvet and still galvanize a core of fans who will journey to the outer, saturnine limits of your own obsessive images. That you can suavely oscillate between film and TV projects, even before such a thing was fashionable for our auteurs, and without the protective auspice of a paid-cable channel. That you can court incoherence in Fire Walk with Me and honor the simplest classical traditions in The Straight Story all in the same decade. That you can alchemize a rejected television pilot into the ranking apotheosis of your own feature-film career, and maybe of postmodernism more generally in the American cinema.

Lynch keeps daring us and daring himself, and the film world tenses with anticipation at each new step he takes—which, more than four years after the trip down Mulholland Drive, could hardly appear a moment too soon. There is no question in my mind that Mulholland is Lynch's best and richest movie, but if that masterwork is missing anything, it's the daft, piquant riskiness of a film like Eraserhead, which reflects not the trained professionalism that comes with decades in the business and a cohort of frequent collaborators, but from a pure will to test the on-screen viability of an almost id-level sensibility. Lynch is the credited director, writer, editor, composer, production designer, special effects technician, and sound-effects editor on Eraserhead, and I suppose I feel, with no particular justification, that assigning any more chefs to this dada dish could only have diluted the flavor. Though quite evidently a workshop for sonic concepts, experiments in framing, and poker-faced acting styles that would later be redrawn in finer detail, Eraserhead works marvelously on its own terms. A dreamscape to equal Un chien andalou, the film also traces a clear narrative line through nervous courtship, an excruciatingly anxious paternity, and a kind of fantasy life that isn't so much stifled as it is genetically rearranged by an oppressive, penurious existence in a post-industrial no man's land.

I'm sure all of Eraserhead's fans have their own favorite moments. Unquestionably, one of mine is the non-diegetic soundtrack of whines and slurping sounds beneath Jack Nance's first painful meeting with his girlfriend's parents, belatedly linked to a dog suckling her litter in the same room. Close behind that is the Tod Browning shot of Charlotte Stewart's strained expressions as her head rests on the foot of a mattress, only tangentially indicating that below the sightline of the frame, she is reaching for a suitcase beneath the bed. All of the scenes of the titular and pustulent dino-baby are unforgettable, as is that famous shot of Nance's startled grimace and his backlit pile of wiry curls while the spores released from his baby's abdomen fill the air around him. What does any of it mean? Please don't make me guess. I haven't even tried to delve into the connotations and integrated resonances of Eraserhead because the pleasures it imparts as pure collage are so profound, so inexpressibly funny, and so relatably sad. And I cop to finding enjoyment in the fact that Eraserhead is, for all its notoriety and the prestige of its director, so totemistically difficult to locate, making the movie rare in every sense—uncommon, exquisite, and served up all but raw.


#72: Vanya on 42nd Street
(USA, 1994; dir. Louis Malle; cin. Declan Quinn)
IMDb

Even a Julianne Moore disciple can't start a write-up of Vanya on 42nd Street with a nod to Julianne, or even to Louis Malle, whose movie this is, or even to André Gregory, whose minimalist workshop production of Uncle Vanya is the subject of this loving, sublimely attentive film. If you're talking Vanya on 42nd Street you have to start with Chekhov, a playwright so very resistant to screen treatment and so very easy to misconstrue in areas of tone, delivery, and intent. The infamous question of how Chekhov could possibly have considered plays like Uncle Vanya to be comedies is the task of a talented troupe to unravel, a rare feat to which this film makes us so thrillingly privy. Translated by David Mamet with economic brilliance, Chekhov's play achieves such concise pscyhological insight with so sure and light a hand that it can almost make you blush, and yet for all of the characters' many endowments—Dr. Astrov's charisma and his ethical grasp of nature, Sonya's work ethic and sad-eyed resilience, Yelena's exquisite beauty and stunning indolence, Vanya's sour wit and impatience with pretense—they are none of them much armed with a capacity for change. As the script transcribes an arc from one domestic arrangement to a different and notably smaller one, nearly all of the characters' hopes and plans continue to exceed their grasp, almost by definition. "Comedy" thus appears to name their steady commitment to ideals they can't well afford or attain, and their rueful awareness of this very dilemma, to which, in private moments and with the right ears to bend, almost all of them confess.

Capturing such a delicate lacework of feeling and compromise is difficult enough, but Malle does more than document a stirring production. He subtly tailors a form of Chekhovian direction that alights just as softly but lucidly on its subjects. From the piquant prologue of the actors' arrivals and chitchats, Vanya gorgeously idles into its own opening lines with a simple cut and a gliding camera move; the effect is similar to how Bergman introduces his Magic Flute, and the emotional rewards that follow are comparably rich. Cinematographer Declan Quinn, refining his own techniques in line with the scrupulous actors, adduces the angles and auras of each face with total perfection, carrying Astrov from hardy to dissipated or Sonya from plain to luminous in no time at all. The seeds of his smart, observational cinematography in Leaving Las Vegas, Monsoon Wedding, and In America are already flourishing here, not least in how he incorporates the darkened theater itself into his compositions, choosing exactly when and to what extent each character emerges from absolute shadow. These camera regimens indicate just how cinematic this Vanya is despite its unfussy, unfurnished groundedness in theatrical art. Close-ups, gingerly inserts, and other privileged views of the actors do as much to convey the characters as their trained vocal precision and consummate faith in their material. "No, one would not describe this family as happy," confesses Moore's Yelena, but has this actress ever laughed so much and with such fine degrees of implication in any other film? Her chuckling, abrupt admission that she would have enjoyed marrying a younger man is a sublime Chekhovian moment, as is Larry Pine's garrulous, principled, but self-absorbed defense of the Russian forest. Another glory is Wallace Shawn's deft application of his unique, adenoidal delivery to a killjoy character who nonetheless requires our sympathy, even though he has no obvious claim on it. Shawn finds and defends those claims, working as seamlessly as everything else in the film—except, of course, when Malle or Gregory wants us to notice and consider the seams, the determinate environment, the historical and cultural distance that suddenly feels so much less distant. In a year whose other breakout movies (Pulp Fiction, Heavenly Creatures, Natural Born Killers) were such virtuosic plunges into wild aesthetic surfaces, Vanya on 42nd Street is, in the words of Pablo Neruda, as bright as a lamp, as simple as a ring, remote and candid.


#73: Night of the Living Dead
(USA, 1968; dir. George Romero; cin. George Romero)
IMDb

The opening shot of the lonely gravel road, circuitously joining two unknown points, is held several beats longer than is strictly comfortable, and right from that single choice, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead sets itself apart as both a smart formal exercise and a new kind of horror film. Minutes pass as a frankly annoying thirtysomething called Johnny taunts his sister Barbara, a piece of gleaming ivory who'd look endangered and overchallenged in almost any circumstance. Johnny's petulance and Barbara's shrill anxieties, both of them shallow reactions to mortality, virtually incite the vengeance of the dead—inviting the zombies to stand up for themselves, as it were, and sock these two into a more genuine confrontation with the terror but also the slow, lumbering fact of death. It hardly matters that these two will never receive any lifetime achievement awards from SAG, though it's also quite easy to underestimate the skill of the film's performances. From a standpoint of technique, the opening of Night of the Living Dead is a tour-de-force in hobo's clothing, splicing its cheap-looking footage into brilliant orchestrated sequence, using severe montage to lend credence to the hysterical, teetering camera angles. What best depicts the barrier between life and death—the stark and horrifying way the film dives from simple, straight-on full shots to canted, quaking, handheld panic? Or the nagging likeness between the glassy, one-dimensional humans and the lockstep, frozen-faced undead? Or the inexorable, ungainly momentum with which these hobbling bugaboos skulk toward their prey, who will all die later if they don't die now?

Romero, using Zapruder-grade black & white film, founds a hellblazing film and in fact a stout, hardy franchise out of these basic yet wittily debatable oppositions. Having whipped together such a tense scenario in his opening scenes, Romero bunkers Barbara into an old, lonely house, as undermined in its pastoral, self-protective isolation as the Clutter estate in In Cold Blood. Barbara's only companion there, at least at first, is the lucid and capable Ben (Duane Jones), a black man who knows that Barbara's almost pathological inertia and inward-turning fright in his presence may only be proximately rooted in their ghoulish state of siege. In his combination of competence and impatience, generosity and ire—all the more easily stirred when he meets the jittery bigot hiding in this American basement—Ben is the most fully dimensional character in the movie, not to mention a more believable person than almost anyone Sidney Poitier played at any point in the 1960s. That this is the case says less about Poitier than about Stanley Kramer, Norman Jewison, Ralph Nelson, and other big-studio directors who honorably assayed racial themes in their films, though they were at best inconsistent at realizing that the Hollywood mainstream was hardly the place to achieve or even expect the kinds of stories or ideas adequate to the issues. It's incredible to observe the sharp, cutting brushstrokes with which Romero draws attention to the racism, chauvinism, cronyism, naïve romanticism, and other diseased attitudes that torque this ragtag outpost's ability to properly forestall the slow zombie onslaught. The nuclear family intrudes meanly on the wider social unit, as the distraught Coopers demand both privileges and privacy as the birthright of their domestic bubble, lesioned though it already is with an ailing, probably monstrous daughter. Even the Red Scare starts to infiltrate the Dead Scare, as newscasters pontificate about nuclear radiation as a possible explanation for this clearly inexplicable phenomenon.

Night of the Living Dead, still my favorite from among Romero's excellent series, is a brilliant allegory of how people and especially strangers act in a crisis, rather than how we might prefer to act or how we remember ourselves as acting—and yet, as any viewer can attest, Romero's obvious conviction in mounting this critique does nothing to slake the force of the tooth-gnashing, clobbering, apocalyptic plot. Quite to the contrary, Night of the Living Dead's basis in genre only amplifies its thematic parries, since the palpable, lethal urgency of the crisis underlines both the tragic, angry rendings of the social canvas and the hopeful glimmers of alliance and entente in a way that In the Heat of the Night's more peremptory and self-enclosed plot—much less the dinner with Mr. Guess Who—can't really equal. Every dimension of the movie culminates in the incomparably brave final shots, and rarely has "shot" seemed like such an apt name for what can be stirring, powerful, complicated, dangerous, and almost exhaustingly entertaining in this popular medium.


#74: Babe
(Australia, 1995; dir. Chris Noonan; cin. Andrew Lesnie)
IMDb // My Page

The Daily Telegraph recently published a list of the 20 best films for children, and it's an interesting list, culling surprising titles from the Disney catalogue and encompassing both well-known and underseen titles—even if, in this reader's opinion, its belief in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit runs prematurely excessive. Conspicuously missing from the list, if I may pose only one corrective, is Babe, the box-office sleeper of 1995, unexpected Academy favorite, and apparently unreproducible miracle, since the sequel struck precious few, give or take Gene Siskel, as rivaling the original.

Babe is magic. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, blessing the film with early, colorful hints of the Antipodean fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings, works within a stable and pitch-perfect palette that nonetheless glides easily among the emerald pastures of Hoggett farm, the calico colors inside the house, the sepia frights and silhouettes of a killing shed, and the blue-filtered nightmare flashback to the drowning sheep. Whatever wizardry allowed the animals not just to "speak" but do so in a way that is terrifically un-creepy has yet to be revealed, at least to me, but these and other special effects in Babe are perennial joys, even after six or seven viewings spread over ten years. The voicework, headed by Christine Cavanaugh's dear articulation of Babe's lines, is just impeccable, and then there's the physical acting by the animals: the uproarious bobs and weaves of Ferdinand the Duck's long neck, the malicious envy of Duchess the Cat, the nervous energy of the dogs Rex and Fly as they attempt to extract key information from a flock of seen-it-all sheep. Why is it that most popular films can't cobble together a decent pen of human actors but Babe can wrest a menagerie of real and animatronic animals into a taut, funny, even witty ensemble? The answer to that question probably lies somewhere in the province of why most child-targeted movies are so clogged with puerile, dizzying set-pieces while Babe exemplifies the virtues of coherent action, picture-perfect art direction, a gentle and melodic score, and a gallery of bonafide characters—both the creatures and their keepers—who negotiate issues of aspiration, prejudice, politeness, jealousy, non-conformity, belonging, and surprise that, in their basic topography, are just as keen for children as for adults.

At the center of Babe, though, is a love affair between farmer and animal that for me handily eclipses its analogue in Wallace and Gromit. Lesnie, as we know from the Rings films, is a whiz at camera movement, and one of the supplest and sweetest in Babe is the high-angle POV shot when Farmer Hoggett first spies Babe in his little plywood box at the county fair. Seguing into a ridiculously affecting shot/reverse shot between Hoggett and hog, this poignant moment finds its obvious, perfect complement in the final shots of the same duo, which end the movie on the same introspective note of deep, intimate, friendly togetherness that we appreciate when Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh, at the finis of The House at Pooh Corner, "Come to an Enchanted Place and We Leave Them There." That Babe's central human character is not a winsome child but a laconic adult, moved and stirred even to spontaneous dancing by this able and good-hearted animal, is another of its lovely, unexpected departures from formula. Embellished in a gleaming white light that we somehow don't resent, Farmer Hoggett and Babe are one of the best and soundest teams in recent movies. Point me to even ten other movies in the last decade that combine unbashful sentiment, top-of-the-line visual effects, rounded-out characters, fully functional subplots for almost all of them, piquant mise-en-scène conceived in this much doting detail, and one-liners as good as "I suppose the life of an anorexic duck doesn't amount to much in the scheme of things, but Pig, I'm all I've got!" That'll do, indeed.


#75: Les Rendez-vous d'Anna
(France/Belgium/West Germany, 1978; dir. Chantal Akerman; cin. Jean Penzer)
IMDb // My Page

The cold, obdurate symmetry of Chantal Akerman's shots in Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, less protracted but just as deliberate as those of her most famous film, Jeanne Dielman..., made an indelible impression on me from literally the first frame. In this prologue, which soon reveals itself as pure in medias res, the titular Anna Silver debarks from a train but lingers on the platform, even as the rest of the passengers clamber down the stairs. As Anna pauses on the quay, she is both overwhelmed and made more interesting by its bland but looming structures: the overhang, the pillars, the signs. Just as much as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Haynes' Safe, Akerman's Rendez-vous spins an involving and specific story out of seemingly arid spaces, photographed in precise, frequently mirrored compositions that somehow make the world seem airless, anonymous: in this case, an endless series of boxes, concourses, and doorways to nowhere. Uniting all of these nonplaces is a sprawling grid of railway lines, conveying featureless passenger-cars full of nearly featureless passengers to veritable approximations of wherever they've just been. Cologne, in this film, looks remarkably like Brussels, like Paris. Relationships between people are as vague as those between places, and even the human body, often enough revealed in states of non-erotic undress, looks worrisomely like a portable property, a valise for cloudy agendas and memories that are rarely evoked or acted upon in any appreciable way. But the bodies aren't cold, exactly. Real people live there, though it's a mystery how this taciturn film is drawing them out, continually stoking our faith in something warm still underlying it all.

What comes through is a vision of Europe that feels remarkably prescient for a film from the late 1970s, a stretching plane of points and horizons from which nationalities, languages, and other cornerstones of unique culture have eroded, or else merged with those of their neighbors. Anna, ostensibly promoting a film she has just directed, peddles her art in a world that not only seems to lack any artistic manifestations (we see not one frame of Anna's movie, nor do we even come close), but from which the very artistic impulse has been superseded by economy, impersonality, and basic accommodation. Not for nothing is Anna's tour wending its way toward Lausanne, Geneva, and Zurich; neutrality all but defines her character, as well as all the milieux among which she travels. That neutrality can feel so infertile is one of the layers that make Les Rendez-vous d'Anna interesting from a political standpoint, though the film works harder to prompt contemplation from the vantages of desire, human relationships, and contemporary hiccups in old, generational models of how the present becomes the future. Anna is dogged from pitstop to pitstop by phone messages from her mother, handed to her by an array of indistinguishable concierges, and when she finally does catch up with Mom, she climbs naked into her bed and tells her, in the film's foggy-intimate fashion, about a woman she once slept with on a press tour. Other lovers are implied, but children are not—and not only because Anna is so defined by her career. "Defined" may not be a word that Anna remotely invites, so wispy and reserved is she, but her various dates, temporary lovers, old friends, and conversation partners are hardly more vivacious or transparent than she.

Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, for all its formalist and intellectual engagements, is also weirdly moving, either despite or because of the purposefully stolid photography, the general forsaking of music in favor of droning ambience, the peripheral characters who remain utterly peripheral, even as they trade their detailed monologues with Anna that do not quite amount to conversation. What it means to reveal oneself in words or to confide in another are active questions posed by the film, but it's reassuring that Akerman has opted not for a bilious tract about modern isolation but for a low, slow symphony of encounters that never extinguish the humane potential or the search for connection that imbue almost all of them. The film also has a healthy sense of humor that eases as well as complicates the tone whenever it pokes through. In a similar vein, Anna's remoteness from her paramours, even as they loll or murmur or evade or press into each other in bed, does not deprive the film of a wise, believably adult sexuality. The modern age is not the death of sex or friendship, and perhaps art and love will also survive, but they need to be recognized in new ways, hustled up from often unpromising elements. Also, the more one sees of the world, touring in the most anodyne and unintensive ways, the less one seems inclined or even able to absorb much of it. But watching Les Rendez-vous d'Anna, guided and anchored by the smartly restrained performance of Aurore Clément (Paris, Texas; Apocalypse Now Redux), you do feel like you've been somewhere, as though you've seen something worth considering, worth deconstructing, worth telling someone about.


#76: Monster and  Boys Don't Cry
Monster (USA, 2003; dir. Patty Jenkins; cin. Steven Bernstein)
IMDb // My Full Review

Boys (USA, 1999; dir. Kimberly Peirce; cin. Jim Denault)
IMDb // My Page

Let's talk a little about audiences. I saw Boys Don't Cry twice in the theater, first with my friend Irene at the Landmark Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco, with a solemnly respectful and, by the looks of things, an overwhelmingly gay-male audience. That theater was so quiet, not just moved but able to be moved by what we were watching, that the full textures of the movie really announced themselves: the droning hum of the convenience mart where Brandon meets a blitzed Lana and steals her a ring; the poignant halts and barely-quelled vibration in Hilary Swank's voice whenever Brandon tastes a second of happiness; the portentous rushes of air beneath the abstract cutaways to the neon, accelerated skylines of the Nebraska night. The emotional arc of the movie relies on a series of nocturnal rendezvous between Brandon and Lana, where the film encases both characters within their own coronas of light, a centimeter or so of human vibrance that looks as though it would be warm to any touch. But these are also Orpheic patinas, the gleam of someone remembered, evanescent. Brandon will die, and the Lana who lives will never again be the Lana who was. For this to resonate, the audience must have empathy, a willingness to cradle not just the romance but the precarious, even reckless adolescence of Brandon and indeed of all the characters, even those who violate our hope and our trust, along with everything else they violate.

Sadly, but revealingly, the film was tested on just these grounds when I saw it again, five months later, in a campus theater filled with high-school students taking summer courses. I expected nervous energy and even tittering as the novel concept of transgender identity came calling for their attention, but I did not expect outright laughter, even when Brandon was accosted and denuded, even when he was raped, even when he and his friendly protector were shot. I came home with my partner and cried for an hour in his apartment, feeling Brandon's tragedy in a new way: not just as a cold-blooded killing, but as a reflection of a frightened, juvenile, and titanically self-indulgent refusal of difference by millions of people who would rather be anything—chortlers, debasers, murderers—than be questioners, carers, students of life. (You are old enough, when a summer-school student, to be a mature witness to violence, to arbitrate the right and wrong, at the very least, in a scene of slaughter.) Brandon's story is obviously both of these stories. The different ways in which both screenings were painful speak to the complexes of pain, the different kinds of moorlessness, rejection, and endangerment that he encountered within himself but also from the outside, from others. A major strength of Boys Don't Cry is that it draws as much righteous authority from a skeptical audience as from a compassionate one. My belief in lots of things shook that night, but not my belief in the movie.

There's a lot of Boys Don't Cry in Monster: an actress undergoing extreme cosmetic rearrangement, a jukeboxy color palette, a first date in a roller-skating rink that cuts to a passionate first kiss, a young life of petty crime that hits a ghastly apotheosis in murder, though this time, the same character walks every side of the moral line. I saw Monster three times in the theater, the second and third time scrunched into a single day; its content, both visually and psychologically, is so gruesome that this shouldn't be possible, but beyond the practical reasons for seeing the movie this way, I was both relieved and frankly fascinated, maybe even a little troubled, at how Monster arrested the skittish impulses in its audience. The teenagers at the AMC Empire who peeled the foil from their Manhattan hot-dogs during the opening scenes, who answered their cell-phones and cat-called at Selby's advances toward Aileen, were literally caught with their mouths open when Aileen is first abducted, then brutalized, then released into a split-second chance at revenge that yawns ever after into a furious career of one-on-one terrorism. I swear I heard a pin drop that didn't even drop in our theater, even during the boldly purple love scene. (Tommy James and the Shondells cut right to the heart of Aileen's cataclysmically misplaced romanticism.)

Swank and Theron will always have careers because of these two movies, but there was a nasty, credulous undertone to the contemporary reception of Theron's work, and even more to reviews of her movie. Probably for that reason, while I am deeply admiring of both films, I am actively protective of Monster. Easily among the best biopics in over a decade, to the extent that they illuminate the lives of real people, they each ask us to see in their protagonists some image of ourselves, and this is a much tougher request to honor in Monster. Brandon Teena is a rebel-hero with illicit habits and terrible luck; Aileen Wuornos is a catastrophe with a phone number and an address, though even these change from day to day. Her will is equally consuming in its benign and its lethal actions. Theron, in her robust embodiment, barely preserves her balance while striding through her unimaginable life—just watch how Aileen rides a bicycle or runs from a car-wreck. Here, as in Nick Broomfield's haunting documentaries, looking into Aileen's eyes and trying to find the person behind them is like looking into a faucet in hopes of seeing the water. That Monster can tell a reasonable facsimile of her story, revealing her dilemmas while keeping her so frighteningly opaque, and that we still can see the value and the relevance of her profoundly shameful case...what could be a taller order? Then again, in this context, it is worth underscoring the heroic job Boys Don't Cry does of making John Lotter a credible and charismatic, occasionally even an offhandedly elegant person, so that our outrage at his conduct is, if anything, made more horrible by the humanity the film affords his characterization. Brandon's bored and dreaming cohort are as indelibly etched and acted as Aileen's bystanders and victims, and the filmmakers presenting them all to us have a knack not just for showing us what they all see in each other but for demanding that we see something of ourselves.


#77: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
(USA, 1965; dir. Russ Meyer; cin. Walter Schenk)
IMDb // ...for W.; a longer-than-usual entry, but there was no other way...

If the title and the snapshot aren't enough to make you need to see Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and I have a hard time understanding why not, here is the opening monologue, intoned by an unseen narrator while the frazzled frequency charts of his own voice jiggle and crackle and multiply across the screen:

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Violence—the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains: Sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled, yet violence doesn't only destroy, it creates and molds as well. Let's examine closely, then, this dangerously evil creation, this new breed encased and contained within the supple skin of woman. The softness is there, the unmistakable smell of female—the surface shiny and silken, the body yielding yet wanton. But a word of caution: handle with care, and don't drop your guard. This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level, anywhere, anytime, and with anybody! Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor's receptionist, or a dancer in a go-go club!

I fail to see how this hoary prolegomenon is any less insane than the compulsory nonsense about baying werewolves and mutating genders that commences any number of Ed Wood productions, but for some reason, despite the patent awfulness of his performers and the whiplash crudity of several edits and the head-spinning tawdriness of his framings and his fetishes, Russ Meyer does not seem like a viable contender for the worst director of all time. In fact, as longtime readers of this site will recognize, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, despite its virtual patent on the concept of gratuitous cleavage, and despite scribbled-out lines of dialogue like "Oh, you're real cute, like a velvet glove cast in iron, and like the gas chamber, Varla, a real fun gal!," and despite its paradigmatically nonsensical plot—about three fast-driving, go-go-dancing murderesses who abduct a screaming teenager in a bikini and then fall into desert warfare with a domestic trio of lunkheaded male neurotics... despite all of this, and actually because of it, Faster, Pussycat! has been holding court on my Top 100 list of all-time great films for close to a decade. Why on earth I have allowed this to happen is one of those questions that this site loves to raise and promptly fail to answer, though it's also one of the pure shots of inspiration behind crafting this second list. And so, it's a question whose time for answering has arrived. Why do I love, why do I esteem Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!? Well: as you know, there are a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of horrendous movies out there, with crappy production values and dubious sensibilities and cereal-box "psychologizing," such as endowing characters with a purely gestalt terror of the sound of trains, or with a lingering forgetfulness about keeping the actors' hair out of their faces, or with rear-projection "techniques" that your four-year-old would spot from her carseat. But I would estimate that 98% of those horrible movies are just lazy, grotesquely inept attempts to animate a dismal script, or to put across an insultingly cheap version of what an audience is expected to want (and sometimes, a huge audience does want it), or to make a quick buck out of some kind of brand name, even a truly ersatz one, like Vin Diesel, or the Olsen twins, or the Predator, or Christmas, or, you know, Kids. By contrast, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, however full of the unmotivated yelling of lines or of vicious wrestling matches in the sand (the delicious tagline: "Filmed in Glorious Black & Blue!"), is a scintillating ambassador for the kind of Bad Movies that radiate a real, swear-to-God point of view, a realized dream of being just what they were meant to be, an effulgent desire to press its lurid will upon the Cinema.

It isn't just that Russ Meyer wants to study huge hooters, or that he'll haul a crane or an oil derrick into any shot if it provides some cool diagonal lines, or even that he has a delightful disposition for filming high-speed drivers in tight close-up on a canted angle, so that you'd never guess they weren't piloting their own jetplanes. If you want auteurial signatures, you got 'em: Russ Meyer filming any character in long shot, while the left and right sides of the frame are bounded by the legs and asses of tough, menacing broads facing away from the camera, is the trash-culture equivalent of John Ford forever staring out from caves and crevices in The Searchers. But it's more than that: in look and in chintzy execution, you can feel that Russ Meyer actually wants to make this artform three-dimensional, with asses and dust-clouds and breasts and shotguns and exhaust pipes constantly pointing at us at baroque, Touch of Evil angles. He wants, and gets, concentrated explosions of fed-up-to-here fury to rival anything in Shock Corridor, and he gets the soundtrack grinding away at ever-higher decibels as presiding hellcat Varla (Tura Satana; that's her in the picture) tries to kill an oafish hunk of man by pinioning him to his own fence with her '60s-sleek racing sedan. The man's name is The Vegetable. It's a stupid movie, but its delights and its absurdities and its sensory impressions are prodigious. I've probably said this before about some other movie, but it's truer of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!: it embodies (boy, does it embody) Eve Sedgwick's distinction between Kitsch, which is art that makes you go, "Who in the world would possibly respond to this?" and Camp, which is art that makes you go, "How did they know to make this ridiculous, debased object just for me?!"

There are lots of audiences who may react this way, though I concede that many others would write the movie off as kitsch, or as insupportably dumb, or as misogynistic nonsense (though I do beg to differ, albeit on the movie's limited terms of equal-opportunity overstatement and vacuity). The boob-loving audience is cinched, and Meyer will always be affiliated principally with them, but I'm in the adjacent audience that waits years for a hard-boiled line of dialogue like this one from a dancing racecar vixen with a blonde flip, a rolled-up gingham blouse, and somewhere she's gotta be, except her day is being spoiled by a slow-ass gas attendant who curls his lips around his teeth and looks like Rod Steiger's idiot brother. "We got two more cars to go, 8 Ball!" she sasses, "Don't make a career out of it!" When a crippled but meddlesome pervert-miscreant complains to Varla about being stuck in his wheelchair, she hasn't got time for sympathy: "I THINK YOU SHOULD BE NAILED TO IT!!!!!," and you just know that all five exclamation points are in the script, if only implicitly. Later, some jerk, actually the cripple's older son, a guy who was happy to feel Varla up inside his barn when the time was convenient for him, starts trying to write her off as "sick," just because she's a kidnapper and an aspiring thief, and because she's desperate to run him over with his father's truck. You know the type. Standard @$#%-heel. Varla's rejoinder, hurled out to make even Bette Davis cower: "I was healthy enough a half-hour ago, or do people look different to you when they're not horizontal!!" And the desert looms behind her are as spooky-flat as the one in Carnival of Souls, and the family is as elementally stunted as the one in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and poor, blonde Lori Williams is such a bad actress that Meyer, serving as his own editor, actually cuts away from her spontaneous reactions to screams and gunshots, because I suspect she wasn't up to real spontaneity.

The all-male version of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is called Top Gun, except it has planes instead of cars that are filmed like planes, and it has a faceless, abstracted enemy over the Indian Ocean instead of this loser-trio of phallic opponents, and it has a volleyball game instead of an impromptu WWF match among the characters who are ostensibly friends. People quote Top Gun to me all the time, even people who were born after it came out, but why? Aside from the volleyball and the Righteous Brothers and Kelly McGillis in a big, boxy jacket and that perfume-ad sequence where she and Tommy make out amid the blue light and the blowy curtains, is there anything to really remember about Top Gun? Whereas Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is an earworm and a brain parasite, and no one but Russ Meyer could have made it. It's a proud, despicable, delicious testament to bargain-basement filmmakers who aspire to render sublime and Platonic their own outlandish failures of taste. I think Meyer succeeded, brilliantly. He made the perfect bad movie. "You don't gotta believe it, honey, just ACT it," screams Varla. On her behalf, I wholly agree, and you can see that she more than walks her own talk. And I would add that you don't gotta admire it, honey, just ENJOY the blazing shit out of it.


#78: The Brood
(Canada, 1979; dir. David Cronenberg; cin. Mark Irwin)
IMDb

David Cronenberg's The Brood debuted in 1979, the same year as Robert Benton's box-office smash and Oscar darling Kramer vs. Kramer. Though his film beat Benton's into theaters by several months, Cronenberg has often cited The Brood as his own horrified rebuke at the domesticated middle-class gauziness of Kramer, having himself recently emerged from a caustic divorce and custody battle. The Brood/Kramer showdown, forever rooted in their own irreconcilable differences, offers as stark a dichotomy as the more infamous Do the Right Thing/Driving Miss Daisy square-off at the end of the following decade: same issue, same medium, different galaxies. And though such is not always the way, the indie films sure come out smelling like roses in these comparisons.

The throbbing knot of angry frustration that so thrillingly crystallizes The Brood—it is by several degrees the most focused and accomplished entry in Cronenberg's pre-Videodrome filmography—is also the explicit subject of the movie, where it is nonetheless aligned with monstrosity and the will to murder. On the one hand, divorced dad Frank Carveth is comfily outfitted with a placid demeanor as well as primary custody of his young daughter Candace. Frank tells Candy's teacher that his wife Nola "married me for my sanity, hoping it would rub off on her," and everything about the film implicitly defends his claim, from Art Hindle's collected performance to the preponderance of screen time afforded him by Cronenberg's script. By contrast, Samantha Eggar's Nola is a raving harpy, an absent mama, and a slave to psycho-clinical trends, having given herself over to the experimental regimen of "Psychoplasmics" founded by Dr. Hal Raglan, an unsettling figure who impersonates his own clients' most bitter antagonists in long role-playing sessions, until the patient's unleashed fury is literalized as nodes, rashes, or pustules on the surface of his or her skin. The Brood doesn't delve deeply into the internal operations or even the grounding logic of the Psychoplasmics enterprise; like the Cathode Ray Mission or the Black Meat factory in later Cronenberg films, this posthuman phenomenon titillates with the idea rather than the mechanics of somatic transformation. It is, however, the conceptual heart of the picture, however shrouded in mystery—a state of affairs that is underlined by The Brood's taut, pervasive emphasis on oblique framings and offscreen space. Cronenberg's contempt for Nola is as clear as his fellow-feeling with her cooler, calmer husband, and yet her operatic rage and her willingness to push her body and mind to new limits of being are what animate the picture, literally yielding its prime agents of horror, and conferring narrative possibility onto the static canvas of the director's own palpable anger. You can't watch The Brood without sensing its exorcising function in the life of its maker. The emotional strata of the film, no less than its tense images and grisly set-pieces, no less than Dr. Raglan's dissertation or Nola Carveth's otherworldly and abject progeny, embody "The Shape of Rage."

So I love The Brood for flaunting its metaphorical referents, yet still complicating the presumed roles of hero and villain with its undisguisable awe at the potency and intricacy of what Nola's ferocity brings into being. Guaranteeing that the movie isn't just Cronenberg's triumph, The Brood is also his first important collaboration with deft cinematographer Mark Irwin, who subtended his career throughout the formative period leading up to and including The Fly. Composer Howard Shore and art director Carol Spier, each holding those jobs for only the second time in their careers, also begin their auspicious and still-evolving teamwork with Cronenberg on this picture. The work of these artists, together with Samantha Eggar's ferocious conviction as Nola and the generally capable performances all around, impart unto The Brood that singular air of a terrific genre exercise that also foreshadows stranger, deeper, and more complicated triumphs lying over the horizon—several of them further up on this list, in fact. It's an exciting film, as regards both aesthetic merit and entertainment value, and it holds up beautifully even in retrospect. Three years after The Brood, Alan Parker's white-hot and perfectly judged drama Shoot the Moon did at least prove that a commercial film with a prestige cast (Albert Finney, Diane Keaton) could peel the skin off the question of divorce, but Cronenberg's foray into the terrain remains seminal.


#79: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
(USA, 2005; dir. Michel Gondry; cin. Ellen Kuras)
IMDb // My Page

Dave Chappelle's Block Party commemorates a day-long concert held on Saturday, September 18, 2004, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York (think Fires in the Mirror or Do the Right Thing), an intensively planned affair that is nonetheless presented here as off-the-cuff and spontaneous and underground. It's a dazzling rumor sprung to actual life for the web-savvy bloodhounds of young New York, and it's a specially slipped treat to the denizens of the 'hood where it happens, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime teleportation for some of Dave's sidewalk acquaintances in and around Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he spent part of his childhood and now lives most of the year with his wife and kids. Though the film won't tell you that last bit. Ain't the time or the place. We don't look at Dave's house or his baby pictures or hear his wife's accounts of mundane domesticity (you know, "To me, he's just the guy who takes out the garbage!"). Yellow Springs, metonymically expanded here into the nearby small city of Dayton, is a place where Dave can drop into a thrift store or a quick mart and cajole some everyday folk to schlepp out to Brooklyn on a chartered bus to experience a funky-fresh backyard Lollapalooza that he's cooked up for no articulated reason beyond his affection for the Bed-Stuy community, his own fandom of the acts he has convened, and the chance to see what happens when hip-hop, celebrity, and Dave's own spitballs of parodistic and observational comedy are permitted to harmonize for a day with the collective jubilation of a crowd, among whom even the handpicked members only sorta kinda know the details about the jam that Dave has cooked up for them.

I first saw the movie on May 5, 2006, at the Cinestudio movie theater on the Hartford, Connecticut campus of tiny and well-heeled Trinity College, the night before graduation, or maybe the night of graduation, or maybe on the last night of exams. For whatever reason, amidst one of my regular Purple Rose of Cairo delusions, I assumed that the endorphins, the ribaldry, and the merriment promised by the film would be duplicated and reciprocated by a bandying crowd of my students, hitting the full stride of their summers and/or clinging to the last strands of collegiate insulation. As it happened, alone in the balcony of Cinestudio, I could see about six paying customers on the ground floor. Perhaps because I first experienced this raffishly effusive movie in a nearly empty hall, I felt even more poignantly attuned to the undercurrents of nostalgia and bruised optimism that feed like tributaries into the predominating streams of live performance and ecstatic comedy and backstage hucksterism. These accents of maturity and self-reflection, provided by aging eccentrics and a nursery-school administrator and often by Dave and his introspective cohorts, furnished even more layers to what was already a robust emotional experience. The editing also plays a huge role in fostering this affective richness: Sarah Flack, the cutting-room genius who warmed up the hotel's sterile longeurs in Lost in Translation and helped spike the wispy narrative of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, leads a team of editors who structure the movie as an instant time-capsule, a chronicle of a concert foretold and a remembrance of emcees past, a memory already passing (with joy, with surprise, with call-and-response, with beautifully moderated flamboyance) even as we watch the cross-cut scenes of guests being invited, plans being made, chairs being borrowed, and block residents being charmed out of their wits.

It's a thrillingly made and perfectly judged movie, shot largely on the fly and composed as a sort of exuberant scrapbook by master packrat and handicrafter Michel Gondry—and still the movie is as gorgeous in its colors and enveloping in its soundtrack and as fully adult in its tonal fusions as is any story-boarded, screen-written, studio-nurtured movie I've seen in years. I don't think it got its full critical due in 2006 when it arrived in American theaters, and I can't think of another movie, not even the jazz-centered chapters of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, that works as heroically to make black artists, hip-hop style, and African-American idioms into an ecstatic emblem not just for "African-American culture" but for American life as a whole, American diversity, American happiness. Post-Katrina, it's hard not to see the movie as one of exceedingly few where black faces and working-class faces (and lots of Latino faces, and a few white faces) are assembled in a spirit of festivity and togetherness, not of abandonment or justifiable anger, even as the rhymes of Dead Prez and Common and others strike some raw ideological nerves.

But let's not get too heavy in here, because one of the movie's sublime joys is that it stays so light on its feet, in its muscles, in its heart, even when it's sounding some important depths. Where have I seen a happiness as distilled as the thunderclap of enthusiasm that the Central State University marching band emits, as they learn that they'll be busing out to Brooklyn to play for some of their heroes? I laugh every time in throat-full, vicarious pleasure. How does Dave get me to laugh during every viewing at his simple and juvenile joke about a man with a tiny penis, and how will I ever make sense out of that Broken Angel house, described by its generous, indescribable, Grey Gardens-ish residents as a building that becomes a helicopter leading up to a huge floating ship that turns into a whale, or something? What is better than watching Erykah Badu concede her battle with the rainstorm wind and yank that three-foot Afro wig right off her tiny head, mid-song? Look at Talib Kweli's clothes; listen to Jill Scott's intensely self-loving sermons about loving others; yell along with those golf-playing brothers of Dayton, Ohio, who are as funny describing a nasty racist incident as they are sidling up to the superstars on Dave's stage. Look how Dave wins a rap battle instantaneously by going off-rhyme and off-rhythm with his smiling takedown of his mohawked competitor's chintzy necklace. And reader, I cried real tears into my Mountain Dew when Dave brought out his surprise guest: "Give it up for a miracle: The Fugees." Who knew I'd missed them this much? And the hot-jam, slow-burn, crouched, flexible, athletic, cocked-hat, brainy beat-making they dropped on the world for a few short years—which already seemed, in the summer of 2006, so long past? Till suddenly, here they were. I'm not going to lie. I danced by myself in my aisle.


#80: Executive Suite
(USA, 1954; dir. Robert Wise; cin. George J. Folsey)
IMDb

Among the great, semi-forgotten American films of the 1950s is Robert Wise's Executive Suite, my favorite among his many directorial outings and still an incisive, attentive character drama about the high, hallowed halls of corporate intrigue. "Because it is high in the sky," an anonymous narrator intones over the opening shots of then-modern skyscrapers, "you may think those who work there are somehow above the tensions and temptations of those who work on the lower floors. This is to say, it isn't so." And how. The names of the film's dynamite lead cast are heralded onto the screen by the low chimes of a public clock, and with a lineup this sterling—William Holden, Fredric March, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Pidgeon, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters, a surprisingly tough and never-better June Allyson—the gesture hardly feels grandiose. As the movie begins, it demonstrates an affinity for formal stunts like the stark absence of any musical score and the long, tracking POV sequence shot in which the unseen Avery Bullard, president and redeemer of the Treadway Furniture Company, concludes a business meeting in Calhern's office, sends a telegram to his home office, and dies of a sudden stroke on the sidewalk while hailing a cab. From this point forward, however, the movie coils its springs and employs much more modest means in achieving its magnificence: the actors, equipped with great roles and fellows and a drastically under-explored American theme, light into their parts with heroic, muscular conviction. Ingeniously plotted, the film delays each character's awareness of Bullard's death in clever ways, digging into their reactions in some cases—Pidgeon's sorrow, Calhern's duplicity—and cleverly excising these reactions in others, so that we are all the more surprised by their battle strategies for filling the vacuum at the top of the ladder.

Wise, famously, was an editor before he was a director, and as with all of his films, the cutting expertly serves the tone and theme of the film, hastening the ends of key scenes by beats and half-beats, just enough to aggravate the tension. In concert with Ernest Lehman's typically shrewd script, Wise also makes time for unexpected accents and cul-de-sacs in the narrative. When Holden's earnest factory supervisor, now a coalition candidate to take over the company, is called away from a backyard game of catch to keep up with the latest machinations, wife Allyson dons his mitt and takes their son back out to the yard. Throwing and catching some mean fastballs in deep, unedited shots, Allyson keeps up a smart dialogue scene at the same time, which not only constitutes a small and unexpected moment but prudently keeps us guessing about what Holden and his cronies are up to. We know the basic idea; he's collaborating with Calhern, at least, to ensure that crafty, officious fussbudget March doesn't become the top banana, even if March himself capably and unshowily takes top honors in a cast of expert rivals. His prime competition, if we allow the film to teach us that everything is a competition, comes from the unexpected quarter of Nina Foch, Gene Kelly's haughty patron in An American in Paris. Cast here as the late CEO's loyal, proficient, and keenly alert secretary, Foch has one of those roles like Kelly Macdonald's in Gosford Park, watchfully slinking among more obviously dramatic characters, but all the while managing the tough double-trick of clearly delineating a specific character while also serving as the audience's general window into what's happening.

The climax of Executive Suite's script preserves all the slippery power and impressive dexterity of the earlier chapters, and continues to stoke our sense that all of the characters must be closely watched. The closing soliloquy is perhaps the one truly predictable element of the film, but its lucid optimism and core values are still quite rousing. Its grasp of corporate psychology, much less human psychology, seem much richer than in Billy Wilder's glib and opportunistic The Apartment, and the tough, simple confidence of its formal choices register much better with me than the more elaborate noir stylistics of Alexander Mackendrick's celebrated Sweet Smell of Success, which Lehman helped to write. Too, it's one of those movies that you're most likely to see if you pop onto cable TV and find that it happens to be playing, so for most of us, the film is brightly tinged with a genuine sense of discovery. 'Tis pity, though, that this is so.Why we hardly recognize a film this relevant and top-drawer, replete with such famous names ticking off some of their best work, is beyond me, but unlike capitalist profiteering and white-collar backstabbing, it's an easy enough habit to kick. Rent it.


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