There aren’t but a few ticks left in 2013, a year which
found me more divorced than ever from the theatrical moviegoing experience, an
activity that over my lifetime has often seemed as commonplace and even as
essential as breathing. But the past year in personal economics has forced some
sea changes in my habits, in terms of what I have available to spend on movies
in dollars and in time. And to be honest, I don’t entirely look upon this as a
bad thing—another shocking realization given my lifelong enthusiasm, especially
when I consider how many times the spending of the effort and those hard-earned
dollars to get to the theater has resulted in frustration over the deterioration
in civility and consideration among audiences, not only for fellow viewers but
often for the movie they too have paid to see.
There also used to be a time when I felt an obligation, more
or less, to see everything that came down the pipe. But no more—my sense of
completism is no longer such that I feel any compulsion to see movies like About Time, or The Fifth Estate, or The
Hobbit: Bilbo vs. the SmaugMonster, or whatever the hell that last Die Hard sequel was called, just because
they’re out there. It’s hard enough to keep on top of the multitude of movies
that I actually want to see. And in 2013 I’ve done an even less thorough job of staying
in the conversation vis-à-vis new release than ever before, which makes participating
in the year-end rituals of ranking and taste-flogging even more difficult.
I enjoy those rituals enough, despite the often numbing sameness of the
majority of lists that get aired out even before all the movies of the year
have even had their week-long Oscar qualifying runs, that this year, as in
years past, I bemoan the fact that my own top 10 list for the year will have to
wait till February to be posted. It’s
often that long before I’ve seen enough of what’s out there to give me a sense
that I have even a rudimentary handle on the year in film.
So, as counterintuitive as it may sound, this year I’ve
decided to make a little game of my shortcomings and publish two lists. There will be that February-ish
one, which will come after I’ve had a chance to see American Hustle and Nebraska
and Her and The Past and The Great Beauty
(I have a screener!) and Short Term 12 and Frances Ha and
August: Osage County and Byzantium and The Armstrong Lie and Blue
Jasmine and The Wolf of Wall Street and Inside Llewyn Davis and the seeming hundreds of others I have yet missed.
And then there’s the one I’m posting today, the one comprised
of the best I’ve actually had an opportunity to indulge in before the ship tips at midnight. Given the frequent refrain being that on any given day the
critic’s list might be different, in either ranking or selection, today’s list
is one that is by its nature in flux, one which I know must be different than the top 10 I’ll compile two months from now.
I just felt like it might be an interesting exercise (at least for me) to look
at the two lists in February and consider how much effect the year-end push for
“quality” in the typical American movie industry release schedule actually has
had on what I value most in my own favorites. It also seemed like a nice way to
highlight the movies that are likely to get pushed out of the top spots,
another way of saying, “Hey, these movies are good too!”
So behold the movies I’ve thought most highly of in the
calendar year 2013. I’ve written no words here on the individual films—I’m up
early ostensibly to work and am already behind schedule just by writing this
introduction, so I’ll have to table my final takes on them until February. These
are, as Sergeant Joe Friday often said, just the facts, the names only. The hopefully
impassioned reasons are, like the rest of the movies of 2013 yet unseen, coming
soon to a theater near me.
My top 10 (+1) favorite films of 2013 so far, in
From my house to yours, may you and your friends and loved ones write a new holiday standard of love and happiness and togetherness during this Christmas season. Kick back, pour a drink, stay in your jammies late, open some presents, toast your fortunes, have some wonderful food and companionship, and above all be blessed. And while you're at it, see a movie! Maybe some of the SLIFR 12 Days of Christmas will in some way inspire your choices or just add to the happy buzz of what I hope will be your best Christmas holiday yet.
Day One: Out of the past and into your stocking...
Day Two: One to make any grinch's heart grow three sizes!
Day Three: I put the star on top of the tree... and I liked it. I liked it!
Day Four: Santa Say There's Trouble Every Day!
Day Five: A Christmas Carole!
Day Six: The Peter Cushing Appreciation Society UK sends its cheer!
Day Seven: Don't Call Her Savage, Call Her Santa's Favorite Elf!
Day Eight: Happy Horrordays!
Day Nine: Some good little girls and boys get on Santa's gift list, and some not-so-good little girls and boys get on Santa's shit list...
Day 10: Just Swimmin' in Seasonal Good Tidings!
Day 11: It was December 1966. I was in first grade. They (They!) dressed me up like a Christmas tree and forced me to read to the entire school. I slipped in some choice words though-- Santa was never so salty as he was that chilly morning, and I got even saltier as they hauled me to the principal's office. That'll show 'em. I got a lot of dates as a result of this memorable performance too. Uh-huh...
And finally, Day 12: How could your holiday party go wrong with such a guest list?
Perhaps not the most holiday-y of classics, but it's the one I'm seeing into midnight on this night before Christmas, now that no one believes in Santa Claus under this roof any longer. Sleep tight, my dears, and if the gunplay gets too loud just come and tell me to turn the TV down. The movie's almost over and I'll be going to bed soon too, after finishing off a plate full of cookies, carrots and a glass of milk in remembrance of more innocent times. There's a hopeful and happy day awaiting us all, and this ex-Santa is gonna need his rest. To all those who have read this blog over the past nine Christmases (!) and to those who may have only recently stumbled upon it, may your days be merry and bright and may this Christmas in particular be full of light.
Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a while since Miss Jean Brodie asked you firmly but politely to put your pencils down and seal off your answers to the last SLIFR movie quiz. But we here at SLIFR University know that even if you, as a student body, have not been as rigorously tested of late as you may have become accustomed to in previous sessions, your education has most certainly gone on, the inexorable accrual of knowledge and experience as impossible to deny as it is impossible to justify your outrageous tuition bills.
And after all, what is a ridiculously expensive education good for if not for flaunting all that knowledge, which probably seems at best trivial to those outside the grueling scrutiny of academia, in semester-ending exercises such as these exams? For those inside the confines of that intense world, the incessant intrusion of such a bombardment of book-learnin’ simply must coexist with the pleasures of art and music and the occasional bacchanalian beer blast. The awareness of this apparently paradoxical coexistence creates, for the distanced yet interested observer, a consideration of conditions that have become standard operational procedure for the typical SLIFR student, that is the condition of being simultaneously both dead-- crushed by oppressive forces within academia like, you know, Dean Wormer or somebody-- and alive to the possibilities of life opened up by exposure to the likes of Vermeer, Whitman, the Renoirs and, of course, a seemingly endless supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon. We here at SLIFR U feel that there is no one better to guide you through the challenges of this year-end testing experience than one who is well acquainted with this sort of quantum physics-derived philosophical conundrum, the sort of challenge which you may face in this new quiz when forced to choose between two art film sex bombs of the ‘60s, or to justify wanting to put a ballpeen hammer upside the head of some guy in line at the hardware store when you overhear him start to diss Last Year at Marienbad, which just happens to be your favorite movie. Yes, there is only one man on the teaching staff here who we feel is up to that Herculean, or perhaps more appropriately that Schrodingeresque task. He is, of course, Professor Larry Gopnik, head of the mathematics department here at SLIFR U, an esteemed educator, master scribbler of figures, amateur philosopher and occasional dabbler in the niche arena of religion-based hauntings. Professor Gopnik has concocted, for your delectation and frustration, with all awareness toward the multiple religious festivals and perspectives being celebrated during this season, his very own Post-Hanukah, Pre-Christmas, Post-Schrodinger, Pre-Apocalypse Holiday Movie Quiz, which he assures us is imminently finishable well in advance of the end of the world. The usual request applies as much to this quiz as to all the ones previous. For each query, copy and paste the question into the comments field and provide the question along with your answer, so the reader will be able to more easily track which question it is you are answering without having to constantly scroll back up to the top of the post. There are no other restrictions or guidelines. And there are, of course, no wrong responses. Short answers are, of course, quite acceptable, though the more detailed your answer, the more entertaining it is likely to be for the scholars who hold your grade, and thus your fate, in their hands. And if you have your own blog, please feel free to post your answers there and leave a link below to your own page.
So let’s get crackin’. Blue Books open, spit out your gum, sharpen your Metzenbaum scissors (we think outside the box here at SLIFR U), and for God’s sake, get that Schrodinger’s cat out of here! You may have as much time as you need to finish, or until that twister blows through town. Have fun!
1) Favorite unsung holiday film
2) Name a movie you were surprised to have liked/loved
3) Ned Sparks or Edward Everett Horton?
4) Sam Peckinpah's Convoy-- yes or no?
5) What contemporary actor would best fit into a popular, established genre of the past
6) Favorite non-disaster movie in which bad weather is a memorable element of the film’s atmosphere
7) Second favorite Luchino Visconti movie
8) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD/Blu-ray?
9) Explain your reaction when someone eloquently or not-so-eloquently attacks one of your favorite movies (Question courtesy of Patrick Robbins)
10) Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell?
11) Movie star of any era you’d most like to take camping
12) Second favorite George Cukor movie
13) Your top 10 of 2013 (feel free to elaborate!)
14) Name a movie you loved (or hated) upon first viewing, to which you eventually returned and had more or less the opposite reaction
15) Movie most in need of a deluxe Blu-ray makeover
16) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?
17) Your favorite opening sequence, credits or no credits (provide link to clip if possible)
18) Director with the strongest run of great movies
19) Is elitism a good/bad/necessary/inevitable aspect of being a cineaste?
20) Second favorite Tony Scott film
21) Favorite movie made before you were born that you only discovered this year. Where and how did you discover it?
22) Actor/actress you would most want to see in a Santa suit, traditional or skimpy
23) Video store or streaming?
24) Best/favorite final film by a noted director or screenwriter
25) Monica Vitti or Anna Karina?
26) Name a worthy movie indulgence you’ve had to most strenuously talk friends into experiencing with you. What was the result?
27) The movie made by your favorite filmmaker (writer, director, et al) that you either have yet to see or are least familiar with among all the rest
28) Favorite horror movie that is either Christmas-oriented or has some element relating to the winter holiday season in it
29) Name a prop or other piece of movie memorabilia you’d most like to find with your name on it under the Christmas tree
30) Best holiday gift the movies could give to you to carry into 2014
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” ― Mark Twain
A movie bearing the title Penn and Teller Get Killed(1988)has a built-in inevitability which,
masters of the perverse and debunkers of tricks and scams that they are,
screenwriters/stars/instigators Penn Jillette and Teller would never consider not fully embracing. The movie’s very
inertness as a narrative exercise built around an escalating series of
deceptions and practical jokes (many of them either derived from or recreated
entirely from their live act) seems strangely deliberate too, a willful
deflation of the very expectations they themselves have set up.
I’m not sure
just how much actual cinema most who managed to see this movie in a theater in
1988 thought they were entitled to, but when I bought a ticket to see it during
its brief one-week run in Los Angeles I wasn’t surprised by its halting,
lurching, episodic structure, and I more or less enjoyed it. Speaking again of
inevitability, that very lumpiness seems a natural byproduct of any attempt to
impose a filmed story on P&T’s brand of gasp-inducing hijinks, the sort
that work to such breathtaking, wisecracking, yet deadpan effect on stage,
where matters of editing and camera tricks aren’t an issue.
Not that Penn and Teller don’t give camera creativity a fair
shot. The bit that opens the movie—a talk show appearance in which they use the
studio cameras to disguise the fact that they’re seated at a desk upside-down,
“levitating” objects through the “magic” of gravity—hints at the ways they
might use the techniques of filmmaking to heighten their already ghastly,
blackly funny trickery. During the interview that follows, one in which their
contempt for the host (and the audience) is barely veiled, Penn feigns
exasperation-- or maybe it’s genuine (part of the running P&T joke is that
sincerity is almost impossible to discern, and even more unlikely to actually
appear)—over how tiresome putting one over on the crowd has become, how blasé
their responses to the repeated puncturing of illusion have become. In a
typical moment of bombast, he speculates, on national television, how much fun
it would be if someone were to actually attempt to kill him and his partner. Their
manager (Caitlin Clarke, spewing a curious Mexican accent which eventually
morphs into an even less believable Noo Yawk variation) may roll her eyes, but
she also sees and dreads the possibilities. It’s an invitation to assassination
mounted as pugnacious performance art, and a juicy way to kick off what
promises to be a delirium-inducing death dodge of a movie.
Unfortunately, seeing it again 28 years later, after a
couple of decades witnessing the sort of wise-assery that is coin of the Penn and
Teller realm become that of mainstream pop culture, Penn and Teller Get Killed seems to sputter almost right from the
beginning. The theme of the duo out-pranking each other is kicked off with a
familiar and funny bit— Teller impishly orchestrates Penn’s blustering,
frustrating attempt to pass through airport security. That’s quickly followed
by a great gag in which Teller and Penn, working in concert, provoke a coin-throwing
scuffle in the middle of an Atlantic City casino. But the movie’s central section,
involving the boys’ increased paranoia and disillusionment over having
attracted the homicidal intentions of a genuine psycho (David Patrick Kelly),
gets quickly bogged down in subplots involving film noir parody—a sequence shot
in black and white until, suddenly, it’s not—and the appearance of a
policewoman girlfriend for Penn… who looks sort of familiar…
It won’t take long for even the dullest of viewers to sniff
out what it takes a cynically prepared illusion deconstructionist like Teller
seemingly forever to figure out—he’s being duped, and we see through it, a strange development indeed. Teller doesn’t
wise up until it’s too late, which certainly sets up the sour fulfillment of
the movie’s titular promise. But by the time one half of our heroes is hanging
by his heels upside-down at the mercy of a maniac, a faint reversal of that
first gag in which he and his partner were in control, the manic energy powering Penn and Teller Get Killed has been
eaten away, like a chocolate Easter bunny with a hollow center-- nothing
inside, most definitely not resurrection, the strains of the Bee Gees’ “I
Started a Joke” hanging in the air.
The aggressively nihilistic tilt of the movie’s finish might
have some bite if what came before were made with anything of the pompous carny glee over the upending of illusionist’s tropes that marks Penn and Teller’s
live performances. I kept thinking, upon seeing it again, that the movie needed
a magician behind the camera as well, someone like Brian De Palma, whose own
cinematic sleight of hand might have meshed well with the macabre irony that is
Penn and Teller’s calling card. But somehow Arthur Penn ended up directing the
movie, and apart from one Penn directing another there’s not much of interest,
certainly not the spirit of foreboding or real danger, or even much sensitivity
to black comedy, that one might reasonably expect from the director of Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves.
The closest thing to a lark
on Penn’s résumé, Alice’s
Restaurant,is still weighted with its voice-of-a-generation convictions,
but even a jolt of the lunacy coursing through The Missouri Breaks would have been
welcome, if only to shake up the static air within P&TGK’s relatively
lifeless frames.Instead, Penn
directs like a TV veteran marking time, which might seem like the only other
legitimate approach to this material were the end result itself less moribund. Penn and Teller Get Killed, which turned
out to be Arthur Penn’s last theatrically released feature, stands as little
more than the period at the end of a fascinating career, one which in 1967 set
the spark to a great, disruptive decade of American film culture and by the end
of that same decade had already begun to settle into faint echoes of its own
It just so happens that my latest encounter with Penn and Teller Get Killed was prompted
by my participation in David Cairns’ Late Show Blogathon,
which concludes tomorrow at his Shadowplayblog. The blogathon features writing dedicated to examining and celebrating the
final films of famous and/or fascinating film directors, and to my eye, P&TGK
made for a perfect example of a once-vital director whiling away his working
days, taking a project presumably for the sake of keeping occupied (perhaps
with the only work available) and failing to invest much of his own personality
and concerns in the process, thus ending his creative journey on a decidedly low
But when I set to thinking about Penn’s opposite in this
regard, a director who was fully engaged and creatively inspired right to the very
end of his life, as a filmmaker and on Earth, the first person that came to
mind was my favorite director, Robert Altman, and the film that capped his gloriously
inconsistent and unpredictable career, A Prairie Home Companion (2006).
Based on Garrison Keillor’s only slightly self-conscious
throwback to the regional radio variety shows of old, APHC deliberately accesses memories of a near-completely arcane style
of programming by calling up faint folkloric echoes of a past that may or may
not have even fully existed, at least as anything other than the object of
sweet nostalgia. As one character, house detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline)
observes, Keillor’s show, which at the beginning of the film is about to be
ushered permanently into memory by the inexorable march of economic progress,
has been on the air “since Jesus was in the third grade.” (Or the mid-‘70s, if
you value the actual historical record.) The Minnesota theater from which the show
has traditionally emanated for all those years has been designated for
demolition by a faceless corporation, and what makes up the heart of the film
is the salutary last performance by Keillor’s imagined stock company—musicians and
actors from the actual Prairie Home
Companion stage/radio show intermingled with an impressive roster of actors
(including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and
Lindsay Lohan, among many others) assembled
The movie begins on a shot of a radio tower at dusk,
transmitting voices gathered out of the electric mist of memory. This ethereal opening
connects APHC with other Altman
movies immediately, most obviously the Grand Ole Opry live radio shows that
inform Nashville (and Keillor’s
original conception of APHC), the beautifully
reconstructed broadcasts that punctuate the milieu of 1930’s Depression-era
Kansas in Thieves Like Us, and even
the cacophony of a.m. radio advertising that kicks off O.C. and Stiggs. But the device also helps make clear that, rather
than indulging an empty exercise in prefab nostalgia, Altman’s film will
operate on a mournful frequency of its own. And as unlikely and unexpected as
it may seem at first, in its themes and even its basic structure it creates a
curious link with Penn’s far less personal and compelling farewell.
Both movies, as it turns out, are concerned with death. In Penn and Teller Get Killed, the
fascination is superficial, immature, valued only for its ability to shock the
presumed bourgeois nature of its audience. (The movie’s meager theatrical and
home video audience probably has a far different perspective on itself.) The eventual
demise of the entire cast is intended as the grand fulfillment of some nasty
cosmic joke. But the punch line has no sting because everything in the movie
unfolds in a context in which nothing “real” is ever at stake, where ironic
detachment isn’t so much a temporary stance as it is the movie’s lifeblood, a
defiant operating philosophy. When the other shoe fails to drop and the bodies
remain limp on the floor, we need only imagine that it will do so once the
lights come up, Penn’s self-satisfied narration notwithstanding.
The slender thread that connects these dissimilar movies turns
out to be their relationship to their central performers. Death in both films
is a concern that is framed and colored by the reflection of performances
derived and adapted from other media. P&TGK
reconstitutes vaudeville stage magic but fails to translate any of its
mystery, or even (curiously) much of the satisfaction to be had from its
debunking, into cinematic language that manages to address the Grim Reaper with anything more than facile attention .
Altman, on the other hand, reimagines Garrison Keillor’s
dense, theatrically presented universe as one that exists perhaps on the other
side of a stage mirror, a world which can only adequately be investigated by the
curiosity of his roving camera. The difference is that Altman feels the quiet urgency
underlying his material. Without sacrificing humor or the joy he takes from this
latest permutation of the community of performers he has consistently
celebrated, whose world he insists we not just observe but inhabit, Altman
allows himself to take the terminal trajectory of his subject very seriously.
In APHC, as Keillor and Streep and
Tomlin take over the dressing rooms, lofts, wings and eventually the stage of
the doomed theater, Altman’s gently probing camera finds its corollary in
Virginia Madsen’s visiting angel of death. She roams these same spaces, even
inhabiting the backdrops onstage during the show, searching out souls which are
quite unaware that they are next to depart the material world, in the same way
that the theater itself has no clue its days are numbered.
Some can see this angel, sense her presence, but most
cannot. When the singer/raconteur played by grizzled veteran L.Q. Jones retires
to his quarters after his big numbers, the angel takes him quietly, and Altman
makes plain his purpose. “The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” says Madsen
in a cool attempt to comfort the woman who discovers Jones’s lifeless body. “Forgive
him his shortcomings and thank him for all his loving care.” Altman, who knew
during production of A Prairie Home
Companion (if few else did) that he had only about a year left to live,
serves Keillor’s material in the most resonant way possible by fashioning it as
his own cheerfully unsentimental goodbye, a valedictory statement on mortality that
is in its modest way painfully profound.
But, befitting Altman’s career-long tendency to exalt in
folly as well as the need for crucial human relationships, whatever the end
result, the 81-year-old wheelchair-bound director nimbly avoids the opportunity
to turn the movie into either a narcissistic dirge or, in the manner of
Hollywood, a hollow triumph of the human spirit. (Or worse, an empty, cynical
joke.) There’s room enough, as it turns out, for plenty of humor and spirited
exchange even among the shadows of inevitability, as evidenced by the movie’s
loving, irony-free recreations of Keillor’s deadpan tales and familiar folk
tunes, some of which have been refashioned into dryly hilarious jingles for products
you just can’t do without. (“Powdermilk Biscuits, in the big blue box.”) Such generosity
is APHC’s primary currency, and
Altman spends it well.
The movie ends on one of the most gracefully sorrowful of
all movie codas, so graceful that even the melancholy it inspires can’t fully
dampen the happiness generated by the movie’s love of performance and
performers—another consistent Altman trait that links him with the forgiving,
unflinching humanism of Jean Renoir. The final show that has made up the film
we’ve just seen is months past, and the central cast members, Keillor, Guy Noir
(Kline), the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda (Streep) and Rhonda (Tomlin) have gathered
in a booth at Mickey’s Dining Car for a reunion of sorts, with ribald cowboy
songsmiths Dusty and Lefty (“The Pachelbels of the Prairie, the Brahmses of the
Bunkhouse”) seated at the counter. After some relaxed catch-up chatter and a
visit from Yolanda’s daughter (Lohan), who has since the end of the last show apparently
become an investment counselor-- she advises poor clueless Mom on her retirement portfolio—there’s
a cut to a view from the inside out through the rain-spattered window of the
A subtle evocation of the reflections that have played such
an integral part in Altman’s visual poetry over the years (think The Long Goodbye, Elliot Gould aimlessly
staring at the surf while inside the beach house Sterling Hayden and Nina Van
Pallandt argue), the group gathered in the booth can be seen reflected in the
window. And just as we registered the double meaning of the neon sign shining “Checks
Cashed” into the night, Madsen’s angel of death appears once again from the
left of the frame, gazes into the restaurant, sees the group and moves frame right
toward the entrance to the diner.
There are a couple of cuts to
the friends chatting, oblivious to the presence of the figure who has once
again made her presence into their lives. She continues to stand silently at
the door, watching, and they finally see her. The camera, again assuming her
point of view, or at least her observing nature as it has throughout the film, moves in slightly. The
four of them are obviously uneasy to be seeing her now—Guy Noir tries to catch
her eye, to draw some indication from her as to who it is she’s there for. But she
She only moves toward them,
the stationary camera watching her as she overwhelms the frame.
A cut to the exterior of the
diner, the camera slowly craning up, heavenward…
and dissolving slowly…
…back to the movie’s central image of heaven, the performing
…where we will last glimpse the actors and musicians, in
their graceful element, before the credits roll.
That Altman could choreograph this moment of reckoning and
bliss as his deliberate valedictory to film and to life ought to put a smile on
the faces of everyone who has ever cherished the great moments and great movies,
and even the less-than-great ones he and his talented collaborators created
over the course of a 40-year career as a director. In its terms of clear-eyed
summation, love of life and acceptance of what will visit us all (sans the
familiar synthetic comforts), Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion might just qualify for me as the best movie
farewell ever made.