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Paul Thomas Anderson
TOP 20 FILMS
Throne of Blood (1954, Kurosawa)
High and Low (1963, Kurosawa)
The Godfather (1972, Coppola)
Annie Hall (1977, Allen)
Raging Bull (1980, Scorsese)
Do the Right Thing (1989, Lee)
GoodFellas (1990, Scorsese)
Schindler's List (1993, Spielberg)
Deconstructing Harry (1997, Allen)
Boogie Nights (1997, Anderson)
Magnolia (1999, Anderson)
Saving Private Ryan (1998, Spielberg)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, Spielberg)
25th Hour (2002, Lee)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Gondry)
Children of Men (2005, Cuaron)
The Lives of Others (2006, Von Donnersmarck)
No Country For Old Men (2007, Coens)
Atonement (2007, Wright)
There Will Be Blood (2007, Anderson)
Also to be noted: This is not a best-of list. There are great, good and bad selections here, but if you're a fan of movies about grifters and swindles, you may feel compelled to check them out for yourself regardless of my opinion.
Also to be noted: This is not a best-of list. There are great, good and bad selections here, but if you're a fan of the genre, you may feel compelled to check them out for yourself regardless of my opinion.
Man of Steel (2013)
Why So Serious?
Zack Snyder's charmless reboot drudges along without its having an elite cast making a spot of difference. To begin with, as Snyder should've, why does David S. Goyer cloud, convolute and dampen up an origins story that has held up for 75 years, and why would Christopher Nolan be so enamored of doing so that he would spearhead a whole new franchise? Muddled, uncoordinated flashbacks lead a displaced Jor-El to Metropolis in time for General Zod's arrival on earth to destroy it with secretly hoarded genetic codes? No trademark costume change, no dumbfounding earthlings with his superpowers and no rapport with Jimmy or Lois Lane. Here, the Daily Planet is as gloomy and underwritten as the obits.
The last hour is a thoroughly exhausting, wearyingly preposterous binge of super-colossal devastation that makes you want to escape the movie, for it to just be over so you can leave and go home and watch the original films, a range of equal portions humor, sentimentality and spectacle deftly measured through and contrasted by the grandeur of Krypton and its ultimate destruction, Clark Kent's Spielbergian growing pains and finally his saving of the world from one of its own. Superman is so winning and indelible because despite being invincible, he's trusting, awkward and virginal. And that crucial element makes even those movies' cheesiest moments credible.
Crucial to this re-imagining being the antithesis of those classics is Batman apostle Nolan. Whether he's to blame for the movie's overwhelming vainglory and conceit is hard to know but easy to assume. It's so somber, the humor can only ever be from our ironic detachment. One thing is for sure. It's no fun, whether Superman mopes and ponders or he's constantly finding himself in proximity to an unusual amount of disasters. Not only is it perpetually frowny-faced, it's monotonous, unthinking, smothering and so endlessly brimming with explosions that one can't help but flip the bird at the screen on cue.
As the obvious, laden and trite dialogue suffers under Snyder's pedestrian helming of quieter moments, the director---with the subtlety of a baboon---ignores pace and running time almost as much as he ignores character and audience appeal as the uncontrolled "climax" elongates into oblivion, literally, leaving Metropolis an irreparable pile of debris. It needs to be said that the visual effects are as authentic as anything you'll see at the current multiplex. But under Snyder's watch, it's like being constantly clubbed with a Mona Lisa.
Above all and more than anything, I so badly wish the movie would have suspended the inundating cavalcade and carved out more than a little wit.
House of Cards (2013)
Shakespearian in Its Ambition, Exquisite in Production Value, Naively Reductive in its Depiction of Washington
House of Cards is ultra-modern, visually exquisite, full of subtly effective performances and juicily surprising character arcs. I made it across the season 2 threshold and was rewarded with genuine surprise. I enjoy the Shakespearian ambition, the brilliant simplicity of its smaller, more human scenes and the revelation of new pages in the careers of its players, young and old, particularly under the helming of its brass of A-list directors. But I think I've run my course with it.
If you're going to set your sights on subject matter as obvious as, "Look at how corrupt Washington is," don't pull punches. Even the critical consensus has largely stopped taking the show seriously, even while the show continues taking itself seriously. The partisan divide is simplified to such a noticeably absent extent in order to clear the playground for all the scenery-chewing battles of wit the cast and its writers can stomach, but even if accepted on that safe-zone melodramatic level, only so many scenes of double-crossing, stage-managing and railroading can play out without the tables truly, not bluffingly, being turned.
The state of affairs is nowhere near as functional as it's made to look here. I wish Democrats WERE the sharks they're depicted to be on this show. The real-life Democrats desperately need Frank Underwood on their side, because in real life, it's not the back-stabbing and manipulation that causes Washington to be dysfunctional any more than it ever has. That is an automatic, superficial reduction of the nature of the beast. For anyone with a desire to tell the story of modern political affairs by cutting to the dark core of the situation, what must be depicted i's total, unabashed gridlock by corporate lobby-controlled politicians who continually get elected because of mass-produced shareholder-owned propaganda.
That story is nowhere to be found here. We get cursory subplots and ancillary characters involved in muckraking reportage, lobbying for natural gas, and there is of course the thrilling episode where Frank bobs and weaves past every hurtle to thwart Tea Party obstruction of his long-anticipated education bill. But it's almost as though Demoracts and Republicans rarely have to deal with each other, and that when they do, all Democrats need be is formidably smart in order to make advances. In a situation where the sky is the limit for corporate investment in campaigns and legislations, where ethics-free journalism is the precedent for a media culture in which news is just another part of the free market system, this depiction is woefully naïve and, frankly, wasteful when such stellar talent has the capability to tell that story.
For those of you countering me in your heads with points to the effect that it has to be reductive and idealized in order to tell an accessible and entertaining story, then let me ask how The Wire was able to encapsulate not one but all major aspects of our socioeconomic reality with not only utter precision and brutal pragmatism (things ironically touted so often by the characters on House of Cards), but also be one of the most direly engrossing series of all time? If Baltimore police journalists can do it, then veteran artists of cinema can do it.
Ed Wood (1994)
You Can't Help but Root for the Underdog
When Tim Burton makes a movie about Ed Wood, one assumes it would be some sort of an ostentatious lampoon, as in Mars Attacks for instance. Wrong. Ed Wood is either a stroke of luck for Tim Burton in regards to acquiring great material it's kismet for him to helm, or what I truly suspect, which is that it's a deeply personal and knowing labor of true, joyous passionate love and mature, careful craftsmanship.
Whether or not the movie is totally accurate as a biopic doesn't matter. It's about more than just an account of Ed Wood's life. It's about a passionate young storyteller breaks down doors, bares his soul, deals with merciless criticism, estranges relationships and fights the system only to prove himself an infamous hack and laughing stock. He was eccentric, relentless, even a little delusional maybe, but he could've been anyone.
This is the film I would argue proved Johnny Depp as an established, certified great actor. He captures all the can-do optimism that kept Ed Wood surviving, owing to a hilarious capacity for seeing the silver lining in the blackest cloud. The script imagines him as a model American dreamer, an idealistic underdog with little to be so hopeful about, since he was also a model American failure.
Something people forget is that Sarah Jessica Parker is a good actress. Something people take for granted, though, after the millennial works of Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch, is this early example of colorful departure casting by Bill Murray. But the stand-out is the landslide hallmark of Martin Landau's long career, totally disappearing into a darkly hilarious rendition of Bela Lugosi.
It's not just Landau's amazing performance that makes him stand out though. Really, at the core of the movie is Wood's friendship with Lugosi, who he genuinely loves, and who comes to depend on him. We see Lugosi alone and withdrawn in a tacky little house, settled in the hollow melancholy of his faded glory and addiction. His first scene is an exquisitely crafted gag showing him trying on a coffin for size. And Wood is able to relieve the despair, if just fleetingly, in a last-minute streak of roles which gave him amplified renown, as the star of some of the most legendary and respected horror classics ever made, and then of some of the most infamous and derided.
Makes Tim Burton Look Like Aki Kaurismaki
Francis Ford Coppola's madly elaborate Dracula rendition is set between London at the advent of a modern-ish age and Transylvania according to an explosion at the Batman: The Animated Series factory. We meet a young attorney named Jonathan Harker who is supposed to venture to Dracula's castle to arrange some kind of real estate whatever stuff. The last guy who went there ran into some snags. No big deal, though. He goes, and there begins a series of deafening and flagrant omens, none of which seem to deter or even catch the attention of young Harker en route.
It seems as though every stop is being pulled out on Jonathan Harker's journey to let him know that danger is near. Many find the casting of Keanu Reeves in the role laughably wrong-headed, but if you think about it, he's the only one with a blank and vapid enough stare to be believable as someone who manages to miss the most aggressively blatant signs of suspicion.
Meanwhile, Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Professor Van Helsing as a guy who may not be able to save victims of wolf rape, but sure can explain the hell out of it. Now, there is a lot that transpires between the voyage to Salvador Dali's Looney Tunes night terror and the werewolf violation, but Coppola and his creative team show every brazen sign of being far more interested in parades of extravagance and ceremonious tableau than with narrative power. The movie is extraordinarily theatrical in how it favors intensification over flow.
The lavish use of expressionism reaches to such heights that it ends up eliciting unwanted laughter. Every set, every backdrop, every detail, foreshadowing, subtext, atmospheric flourish and mere shadow on the wall is screamed at us. It makes Tim Burton look like a Scandinavian minimalist. But all the same, it can be fun letting yourself get swept up in the energy and exhilaration of the whole go-for-broke enterprise.
It does, after all, salvage the title character from the creative flatness of most of his other movie interpretations, and then some. I'd argue that Werner Herzog's Nosferatu takes the cake as the more deeply affecting choice, but I mean, it didn't have wolf rape or baby-eating nymphomaniacs or Tom Waits as an insane guy. Or wolf rape. And Gary Oldman is here. And Sir Anthony Hopkins. They've never detracted from the quality of any movies either have been in as far as I can tell. But more to the point, as the movie sees it, there is a reason why the three Oscars it happened to win were for makeup, costume design and sound editing. It was also nominated for one more, and that was art direction. By now, you surely see the common thread: As a sensory experience, it's a gasser.
American Hustle (2013)
Talk About Being Conned, Everybody! Come on!
The opening scene of Irving Rosenfeld, arguably Christian Bale's furthest left-field role so far, refining his comb-over and crowning it with a spray of aerosol heralds the start of something great. Alas, it was all drivel thereafter.
David O. Russell's raid on grifters and graft in the late 1970s is full of smug put-ons. Though he has selected a cast entirely comprised of hype-magnet zeitgeist stars to draw the crowds, it only exacerbates the self-seriousness of the script, which is pandemic with high camp and laughable pageantry. These people talk way too much. About nothing. Just for Russell's pride in his own riffing.
Beginning with the title card, "Some of this actually happened," the film unceasingly reminds us---often through various characters in carelessly derivative voice-over---that life is a con game, and we all lie. We lie to others, we lie to ourselves. And that it's the American way. And American Hustle isn't clever about making this point. It makes it, makes it again, and in case you didn't get it the first few times, a character says it out loud. Then another one does. And before you know it, you find that it's the self-congratulatory Russell and his overrated cast, not to mention the hordes of critics raving about it, that are conning themselves.
Like Russell's other films, there is quite a bit of humor, but in this case, not all of it is intended. One scene has Jennifer Lawrence going on and on about her nail polish over an important dinner with Irving and Jeremy Renner playing an Italian-American mayor. What initially is marginally charming descends rapidly into a maddening sequence, much too long and breathtakingly vain. And symbolic of the movie in its entirety.
The dialogue is so labored, so artificial and pretentious that everyone involved must've felt too highly of themselves to probe as deeply or use thinking as critical as they all have in past work. Certain scenes seem either pedantically constrained, just have no purpose, or both. Take for instance a particularly eyeroll-inducing ladies room showdown between Adams and Lawrence, while numerous lines are groaners. "After Vietnam and Watergate, we're just starting to trust politicians again." Seriously? "I just want to be loved!!!" What is this, Clifford Odets? "My dream was to be anyone but myself." Thanks for telling me, you self-mythologizing drama queen.
Meanwhile, when you didn't think the GoodFellas and Casino procurements were transparent enough, there's De Niro in a fleeting cameo as a vicious mobster which has no more effect than that of a gimmick of a declining legend riffing on his career staple.
Even the essentially perfect casting of comic genius Louis C.K., in just the kind of bit role I could really get used to seeing him play, can't relieve the film of its hollow ego trip. Once you've unraveled the movie's trendy gloss-over, you've got an overblown wannabe of an undertaking, stuffed with nothing more than the bluster of hand-me-down inspiration, gaudy artifice and lugubrious schtick.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Quaalude Overdoses and Midget-Throwing: A Martin Scorsese Picture
Very likely being an avid follower of Martin Scorsese's works and even more likely to be particularly fanatical about his most accessible and recent films, you were right in expecting a total reflection of the GoodFellas/Casino formula and style---machine gun cutting, swooping camera, characters bursting through the fourth wall like wrecking balls, monster production scope and a soundtrack like a jukebox on speed, all to get us high on our complicity in the excessive debauchery of the characters and their fast-paced lifestyle---and it is indeed awesome. But it is also amazingly effective as a slapstick comedy, loaded with outrageous and absurd laugh-out-loud set pieces.
I say amazing because Scorsese has never done scenes like that and DiCaprio has never even done a comedy before. Scorsese has, but the hilarity here is not in the same vein as The King of Comedy. Or After Hours. It's much broader, goofier and unexpected, as demonstrated in several epic comic tours de force throughout. And it's that very sense of absurdity that makes its commentary on American capitalistic gluttony whole. You know exactly what movie you'll be seeing, but you'll be cheating yourself out of one hell of a ride if you don't see it. It clocks in at three hours but you still won't really want it to end. The movie is as outsized, excessive and compulsive as its title character is.
Money here is not just the root of all evil. It's the total disintegration of any and all traces of decency, at the throbbing heart of which is DiCaprio's character, Jordan Belfort, a real-life stock trader so outrageously shameless and blind to his routine corruption that he virtually appears to be sympathetic, even chivalrous. Belfort couldn't care less whether his clients made money, so long as his share was complete. And like the oligarchs running the country now, his forte was defrauding the the struggling working man who he jockeyed into investing in third-rate penny stocks. Even his sweet first wife is feeling enough to wonder why he marks people who can't afford to be conned. Her civility gets in his way and she's promptly usurped by a blonde lingerie model.
Scorsese's always able to take hard-to-like characters and look at them without judgment, then somehow never have a single dull moment no matter how long he has us watch them. In this case, unabashed farce is the key to it working as a commentary on the absurd overload of greed in this country and how disconnected the super-rich are from their actions and how they affect other people. It also has the most enjoyable and random cast I've seen in a long time, and almost certainly Jonah Hill's finest hour (or three).
Sure, Jordan Belfort begins as a mild-mannered kid with a dream, refusing lunchtime martinis and all, but most of us start out with a soul and a sense of self-control, until we reach a level so rarefied and powerful that you never see any consequences or hardships, and you're cushioned and gratified so completely in a world of leisure and lavishness that whether or not you put the country in debt or screw a few working-class people doesn't really feel like it makes much difference.
As long as the class divides are that wide, that will always be the case. We are constantly baffled by the total lack of conscience in the actions of the 1% and the politicians they puppeteer, but at the same time they honestly must feel that underprivileged people are that way because they choose to be, or simply aren't as smart as them. It's a catch-22 and the only thing we can do, Scorsese says, is laugh at it.
Stand Up Guys (2012)
I've never seen such immortalized actors agree to such an amateur, fetishistic, adolescent piece of nothing in my entire life. Maybe when I was in the 8th grade I saw some less successful actors from Lock, Stock and Snatch, I saw some ham-fisted go-nowhere crime pictures that I enjoyed because I was in the 8th grade. If I were still in the 8th grade, I may enjoy this film and now as a 24-year-old enjoy it for nostalgic vindications. But because it has nothing more to offer than veteran screen legends doing the least common denominator of what teenage boys wish to see them doing, I grow tired of the deficit of self-respect and substance in what they here occupy a 95-minute running time which seems like an endless torture zone of small-time macho triviality phoning in.
Remember Dog Day Afternoon? Remember the Godfather films? Heat was great, too. Is Al Pacino so in love with his fan base that he can't discern the lowest common denominator from the true fulfillment of his talent? Or is he simply looking for the easiest gigs he can find? Between this and 88 Minutes, I'm beginning to lean toward the latter, despite how admiring I am of his contributions to screen acting throughout contemporary American cinema.
Walken, as well, even as an actor who is much more interesting in keeping busy than Pacino, should despite his restlessness decide the difference between jerking off and making love. "We're all outta gum!" Dude. You know you're better than that. And Fisher Stevens knows you're better than that. And that's why should refrain from trusting him.
Alan Arkin is a whole other deal altogether. He does not have to succumb to idolized fantasies of who he is. He's only become such a character since becoming a character actor as an older man. He has always been charming, funny and natural. And yet he is once again as underused as ever. Why is he even here? To add length to a testosterone-driven deficit of ideas? What did he see in this script? A chance to swing a steering wheel to one side and another?
I was going to start this next paragraph by saying that there was a time when testosterone- consumed gangster flicks were full of raw wit and style, but they still are! The thing is, Killing Them Softly didn't have enough spectacle for most people and RockNRolla fell under the radar after Guy Ritchie decided he was going to apply his cup of tea to more spectacle-driven adventures. Fisher Stevens didn't have to go by the Killing Them Softly template or anyone else's in order to make an effective movie. He just needed to give it substance, character, individuality. Stand Up Guys is nothing but the transparent, preoccupied machismo lathered on top of all the good modern crime flicks. And underneath, there's merely a horny young boy with a rough draft of something that may have been something much more interesting had he more patience and maturity to pursue his interests further.
Herz aus Glas (1976)
A Symphony of Dashed Hopes
In the story of the breakdown of a small glassblowing factory in a Bavarian village around 1800, Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass sees the melancholy of communities depending on manufacture, the disconnectedness of people without a feeling of purpose. Dashed hopes and visions of a desolate future come in the guise of the soothsaying of a shepherd, who prophesizes in a hypnotic state. Stay with me here.
This is one of the most legendary of Herzog's films, known as the one where most of the actors were put in trances for most of the scenes. It hasn't been seen much, maybe since it isn't to the predilection of most people. There's no orthodox story, no conclusion, and the final scene is an allegory apparently not related to anything that's gone before. The movie's like a piece of music, where everything is understood in terms of tone and ambiance.
Herzog's panorama has two shots from the tops of peaks, looking down over the earth and the ocean. The rest of the movie is set in a few houses, a beer hall, a glass factory, and in the forest engulfing the village. The people rely on the manufacture of rose- colored glassware. The head glassmaker Muhlbeck has died, taking with him the secret of the glass. Reckless attempts are made to retrieve the formula, but all blunder. A sensible person might say the factory can make other kinds of glass. But there are no sensible people around here.
The dialogue the actors perform under Herzog's hypnosis is delivered with a barren conviction. It lacks energy and identity. What if what we're really hearing are Herzog's own inflections as he hypnotized them and told them what to say? Is he acting through them? These are not really characters, though they have idiosyncrasies. They're people who have had their spirit taken from them by the deterioration of their work. It's a bleak life, but it's a purpose.
The survivor of a drunken free-fall from a hayloft waltzes despairingly with his friend's corpse. People drink and stare. In a particularly memorable scene, one guy breaks a beer stein over another guy's head, who doesn't react. Then, he unhurriedly pours his own beer over the first one's head, again yielding no reaction.
You can feel what Herzog is driving at. In reality, you don't break a mug over someone's head without some apparent rationale, but that's gratuitous for Herzog's intentions. He shows the animal texture of the two men fighting. They need no explanation. They're devoid of motivation, to fight or to live. They've been rendered into shells of despondency and bitterness. Some imagery works fine without literal interpretation. Heart of Glass seems to me to be such a piece of work. We may not quite know what it makes us think, but we know how it makes us feel.
Hypnosis and Power
Werner Herzog's Invincible tells the story of a Polish blacksmith in Nazi Germany who in his provincial integrity thinks he can protect his people after becoming the star at the Palace of the Occult in Berlin, which is overseen by a sinister man who dreams of becoming the Nazis' Minister of the Occult. Much of the movie's uncanny appeal comes from the contrast between the simple-mindedly innocent blacksmith-come-strongman and Tim Roth's wicked Hanussen, who trickles with studied malice. Standing between them is a young woman under Hanussen's mental force, who the strongman loves. The movie is supposedly based on a true story. I can conceive of various ways it could've been told unspectacularly, but Herzog has turned it into a movie in which we mostly have no clue what could possibly happen next.
The movie has the evocativeness of a German silent film, bold in its expressionism and moralistic insistence. Its casting is critical, and intuitively right. Tim Roth is a menacing deceiver, posing as a man with extrasensory abilities, using hocus-pocus and theatrics as he hustles for position within the rising Nazi majority. There's a scene where he hypnotizes the strongman's love interest, and as he stares dauntlessly toward us, I wondered if it was feasible to hypnotize us as well. As for the untrained actor playing the strongman, the camera can look as closely as you like and never see anything insincere.
Herzog always works to push us into the mythic and the mysterious. And here, there are shots of a stark, craggy seashore where the stones are covered with thousands of bright red crabs, all clambering away on their crustaceous errands. As with similar imagery in most of Herzog's other films, there can be no exact interpretation of this. And like most of his other films, Invincible is a unique experience. Herzog has gotten outside the tropes and confines of conventional movie storytelling, and confronts us where our sense of trust and belief keeps its skeletons.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
Things More Horrible Than Death
In Herzog's Nosferatu, the color cinematography seeps into your pores just looking at it. It's vivid, oily, both real and illusory. Things look cold and dirty. There isn't a lot of green, and it looks wet. Interiors are filmed in bold reds, browns and whites. It's a film of remarkable visual creepiness.
There's always something intimidating and awe-inspiring in Herzog's portraiture of the world. And here, shadows truly convey fear. The provincial bumpkins that Jonathan Harker meets en route to Dracula's castle are not quaint or idiosyncratic. They recoil from him. Herzog takes his time before first showing Dracula. He sets the stage with words and looks from people who can't believe he's seeking the Count.
Bruno Ganz, some 25 years before playing Hitler, owns the first third of the movie, playing Harker. His pilgrimage takes a lot more time than in the many other movies based on the Dracula legend. Herzog takes his time heightening anticipation before Dracula's entrance.
And once Klaus Kinski's Count does appear, it then takes some time getting over how he appears. He looks more like a bat than a person. His face and bald skull are pure white. His fingernails are spears, his ears are pointed, his eyes are deep-set. In most movies Dracula's fangs are longer versions of the ones we all have. Here, there can be no mistaking them in the center of his mouth.
Herzog is the most original of filmmakers, not much prone to remakes. Why was he beckoned to remake one of the most iconic and legendary silent films? I think it was mainly because he had Klaus Kinski. Opposite him is cast Isabelle Adjani, a French beauty whose angelic looks provide a virginal target for Dracula's fangs.
But their performances aren't so much honed to perfection as they are products of having been born to play these figures in this story. Nosferatu is genuinely creepy largely owing to Herzog's command of the color palate, his offbeat compositions and expressive contrast of light and dark. Nosferatu is a film that does justice to the corporal substance of vampires. If they were for real, this is how they would look.