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Tih Minh (1918)
The most entertaining movie ever made?
Louis Feuillade's ridiculously entertaining 7-hour mystery serial features kidnappings, daring escapes, slapstick fistfights, secret messages coded in an ancient Hindu dialect, "forgetfulness potions," various forms of mind control, a mountaintop cliffhanging climax, and many, many badass disguises. It also uses an international espionage plot to reflect on World War I and allegorize contemporary French fears about the insidious nature of Bolshevism. The hero is a French explorer and his chief rival is an evil German doctor named Marx. The hero's maid turns out to be a villainess who is secretly in Marx's employ and one of the key title cards is another character's incredulous exclamation that "Marx is here!"
The entire espionage genre, including Fritz Lang's Mabuse cycle and the James Bond films, have their origins here but Feuillade's masterpiece remains the best movie of its kind.
I'm Not There. (2007)
Cinema lives! I'm Not There is one of the most exuberant and ecstatically-made movies I've ever seen. Todd Haynes completely explodes the conventional biopic format by splitting Dylan into six separate characters and crosscutting between them until he achieves something that ends up feeling like a sublime and perfect symphony.
All of the actors do good work in nailing down some aspect of Dylan's personality but Blanchett and Ledger are standouts. The scenes between Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the Suze Rotolo/Sara Dylan composite are emotionally raw and occasionally painful to watch. Blanchett's final scene in the back of a limo, in which she extols the power of "traditional" music in a direct camera address, is deeply moving and reveals the generous heart of the film.
Technically, the film is amazing with cinematographer Ed Lachman and editor Jay Rabinowitz deserving special kudos. I've heard other movies described as "kaleidoscopic" but watching I'm Not There was the first time I've truly felt like I knew what that meant. Because each segment is shot in such a radically different style (with different color and lighting schemes), it literally feels like looking through a kaleidoscope.
The Richard Gere section, much derided in some circles, contains some of the most haunting, evocative and poetic moments of the whole film and I'm very grateful for it.
I'm Not There is a film that expands the notion of what movies can be and I will be seeing it several more times in the near future.
Masked and Anonymous (2003)
I don't know whether it's a comedy or a tragedy but it's definitely a masterpiece
You would probably have to go back to early Godard to find a movie as audacious, shockingly funny and brilliantly incisive in its analysis of the uneasy alliance between art and commerce as Masked and Anonymous, the new movie from Bob Dylan and Larry Charles. As with some Godard, I can't say whether it's a comedy or a tragedy - but it's definitely a masterpiece.
Less than a year after news of the film was first announced, Masked and Anonymous has arrived. Shot on digital video in just 20 days and apparently made in the same freewheeling spirit that Bob Dylan likes to record albums, the end result is a wonder to behold: a dense collage of sound and image that threatens to overwhelm the senses but never quite does, thanks to the rigor and precision of director Larry Charles and his team of talented collaborators. The film is, at turns, poetic, playful, political, personal, terrifying, funny and deeply moving; in short, all of the virtues we've come to associate with Dylan's greatest work as a recording artist.
In an interview in 2001, Dylan said, "We're living in a science fiction world whether we realize it or not." Masked and Anonymous then is the story of that world. This is the world that Bob Dylan sees and responds to; Tom Friend, an aggressive reporter played by Jeff Bridges, is clearly meant to stand in for all journalists, even while Dylan puts his own words in Friend's mouth. Similarly, the organizers of a benefit concert make demands of Fate that must represent the kind of idiotic commercial concessions that Dylan is faced with on a regular basis: the setlist they want him to play includes (tee-hee) "Eve of Destruction".
If Dylan's vision seems bleak, there is a ray of hope. There is one genuine human relationship in the film - between Fate and his former roadie, Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson, in his prime). I believe the warmth and real affection between these two characters, which stands in stark contrast to all of the other relationships depicted in the film, is key to understanding the agenda of Masked and Anonymous, and especially its surprise ending (which I won't give away).
Of course, it is impossible to separate the story of Jack Fate from the legend of Bob Dylan. There are so many references to Dylan's life and career studded throughout the film that it ends up being a kind of self-criticism of the myth by the author. (In this respect, the only film in the history of cinema that is comparable is Chaplin's Limelight - not coincidentally, another masterpiece by an artist in his autumn years.) One obvious example is the character of Uncle Sweetheart, a portly, overbearing manager played with great panache by John Goodman, who is meant to suggest Dylan's own former manager, Albert Grossman. If Goodman's size and obnoxious demeanor don't give it away, the glasses do. What these personal references ultimately suggest is that Jack Fate, the washed-up troubadour, is both Dylan's fear and, more importantly, his victory over that fear.
To direct the Hollywood cast to speak in the script's poetic, ornate language could not have been easy but the actors do an exemplary job. Nearly all of them manage to hit just the right note of cartoonish hysteria to give the film a sense of unity and harmony. Except, that is, for Bob Dylan. Jack Fate is the calm in the eye of the storm, the one rational character surrounded by a world of swirling insanity and director Charles gets a lot of comic mileage out of the contrast between Dylan's deadpan delivery and the over-the-top performances of nearly everyone else; it's like taking a Humphrey Bogart character out of the '40's and plunking him down in the middle of a massively absurd science-fiction landscape - the resignation and world-weariness of the film noir hero remains hilariously intact! The very idea is inspired and the execution is flawless.
The performance footage of course is terrific. Dylan and His Band play seven songs live on camera and there is a warmth, an intimacy and a relaxed quality to the performances that you will only see at Dylan's best club shows. Although none of the songs are heard in their entirety, these sequences are nonetheless beautifully filmed. There is none of the rapid-fire editing and pointlessly roving camera moves that mar the filmed footage of so many live performances. Instead, Charles' strategy is to have the band crowd together and film them in close-up with a wide-angle lens. There are numerous long takes in which all of the band members can be seen and when the camera does move, it's deliberate and meaningful.
In a recent interview, Larry Charles said he never worried about finding a distributor for the film and that Dylan had told him long ago not to worry about the film "in the short term." However the film is received in the short term, the richly orchestrated tapestry of sound and image that is Masked and Anonymous is sure to keep Dylanologists and film fans alike busy for decades.
Nouvelle vague (1990)
Godard boldly suggests a new relationship b/w sound & image
Godard's (or anyone's) greatest film features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight & sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image & upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless William Lubtchansky.