Inventory: Rosenbaum’s best of the 90’s

I’ve already mentioned my love for film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s writing and his lists of favorite films, which I first discovered via his top-ten of the 1990’s (in an article that also reviews Cradle Will Rock, which I was crazy about at the time). But I never watched all ten movies on that original list until this year, having caught up with D’est earlier and rewatched Dead Man just now.

The top ten, with excerpts from Rosenbaum’s comments and links to my entries:

Actress/Center Stage
… the lack of a precise fit between these two actresses and eras is part of Kwan’s point, and the acute and moving historical pathos of Actress would be diminished by a better fit. (And anyway, what’s the point of wanting a precise duplication when we have the original Ruan Ling-yu?)

A Brighter Summer Day
All three of the Chinese-language works on my list are period films, set in the 20th century and made in places that until very recently have all but refused to recognize their own history … In the case of Taiwan, one can date the discovery of history – and hence an inquiry into national identity – to the recent birth of democracy in that country after half a century as a Japanese colony and then under the control of mainland China (1945-’49) and the Kuomintang (1949-’87). Prior to 1987, history was effectively a forbidden subject. For Edward Yang, the inquiry is autobiographical, harking back to his high school days in the early 60s.

Dead Man
Jarmusch’s crucial gesture–a simple yet highly significant step in the history of multicultural cinema–was to assume the existence of Native American moviegoers (a move signaled in part by his insertion of jokes addressed specifically to Native Americans), something no maker of westerns to my knowledge had ever done before; the implications of such a move are so far-reaching that many white spectators haven’t begun to sort them out.

Eyes Wide Shut
Kubrick’s adaptation of a masterful 1927 novella by Arthur Schnitzler. (Kubrick transplanted the action to 90s New York, but his movie has a great deal to say about every decade in this century except the 90s).

D’est
A virtually wordless film in which stasis and movement feel almost interchangeable–exemplified by a handheld camera endlessly scanning sprawled, sleeping bodies in a crowded depot–allows emotion to collect and build into a throbbing Jewish sorrow that mysteriously surrounds everyday images, such as cars driving through the snow or people waiting at night at a bus stop.

Inquietude
…combines the works of three authors, a one-act play and two stories, into an existential parable with every part welded into a single perfect shape … These three kinds of doom are seen meditatively through the telescopic lense of an angry yet reconciled wit, and the interlocking stories are inflected with a kind of magic that recalls The Arabian Nights.

The Puppet Master
…forming the middle part of a trilogy that begins with City of Sadness and ends with Good Men, Good Women. … The Puppet Master is only one of four masterpieces made by Hou in the 90s.

Satantango
If it weren’t for the Kiarostami film, I’d be tempted to call it the funniest movie of the 90s as well. Part of its power undoubtedly derives from the long novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai that the author and Tarr adapted, but Tarr’s virtuoso, choreographed long takes are much more than translated prose.

When It Rains
Burnett’s astonishingly beautiful film compresses an extraordinary amount of what he knows about his hometown and the homeless into its 12 minutes, making it as succinct as a 12-bar blues chorus–and an implicit critique of the flab of most features.

The Wind Will Carry Us
Simultaneously a history of antiquity, the 20th century, and that endless stretch of time known as the present, it shows the interrelatedness of all three periods at practically every moment … As is always the case with Kiarostami, the innovative use of sounds and images makes them merely tools for articulating new kinds of content: we don’t see the offscreen characters because we don’t need to–Kiarostami’s movies are nothing if not focused. And the documentary techniques used to produce fictional details are as purposeful and suggestive as ever.

I would say I unconditionally love six of the ten (and need to see A Brighter Summer Day again; I watched the full-length version, but in VHS quality).

In Film Comment, his list is titled “Ten Best/Most Underrated”, omits Eyes Wide Shut and includes Histoire(s) du Cinema.

The “most underrated” tag makes sense. I couldn’t make a straight top-ten of an entire decade. I love some of the same big action flicks I loved then (Batman Returns, Terminator 2), plus the usual movies that my generation loves (Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects), the oscar nominees (The Thin Red Line, The Age of Innocence, Boogie Nights, The Fisher King), the great American/Canadian independents (Rushmore, Crash, Barton Fink, Archangel), the decade-defining foreign films (Kieslowski’s Three Colors, All About My Mother, Farewell My Concubine, Princess Mononoke) and comedies from Groundhog Day to Cabin Boy.

Still unwatched from the 1990’s: multiple films each by Allen, Brakhage, Campion, Denis, Egoyan, Ferrara, Greenaway, Herzog, Iosseliani, Jarman, Kaurismaki, Leigh, Makhmalbaf, Nair, Ouedraogo, Philibert, Ruiz, Sokurov, Téchiné, Van Sant, Wiseman, Yang and Zhang.

So not counting any of the above, here’s an alternate/underrated top ten, in order of title length:

To Live
Matinee
Le Franc
American Movie
The Life of Birds
La Belle noiseuse
Storefront Hitchcock
City of Lost Children
Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America

Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)

Kind of a dark movie, as Depp moves west towards nothing good, becoming a killer of white men before/after being killed by one. But it’s also possibly Jarmusch’s funniest and most beautiful movie, with great music.

Nobody: Gary Farmer (how did I miss him in Adaptation?)

Thel: Mili Avital, whose film career didn’t take off after Stargate

This was possibly Robert Mitchum’s final film:

Two Marshalls named Lee and Marvin:

The Kid: Eugene Byrd, a regular on Bones
Conway: Michael Wincott of Alien Resurrection and Basquiat

Benmont Tench (at right): Andy Warhol in I Shot Andy Warhol

Crispin Glover played Andy Warhol in The Doors. This movie has two Andy Warhols!

Whahappan:

This Time For Keeps (1947, Richard Thorpe)

Esther Williams musical, feat. Apple Blossom Time, the Chiquita Banana song, Easy To Love (three times! And Esther’s in a whole separate movie called Easy To Love) and of course Inka Dinka Doo, since Jimmy Durante plays star swimmer Esther’s agent/”family friend”/wannabe-love-interest. Another wannabe: her greying boss Gordon (Dick Simmons), whom she almost marries at the end when actual love interest Dick (singer Johnny Johnston) is found to be engaged after Dick’s meddling opera-star dad Lauritz Melchior (the movie’s bad, but you can’t hold that against Lauritz) announces Dick’s engagement to another girl (soap star Mary Stuart, only in one scene). Despite this setback, Dick wins over Esther’s gramma (May Whitty, society rose gardener in Mrs. Miniver) and though I have no particular love for Dick, I’m glad Esther ends up with the only person in the movie within 25 years of her own age (besides bandleader Xavier Cugat – wouldn’t it have been great if she ended up with him instead?).

The Dirties (2013, Matt Johnson)

The Blair Witch School Shooting Elephant Project. Two nerdy kids enjoy making videos for school, videos involving too much sweary violence and too many blatant rip-offs of their favorite movie scenes. Their teacher tries to get them to tone it down, but they keep ramping up, filming a story of two kids (themselves) taking revenge on the Dirties (school bullies). Inevitably, one of the two takes this to the next level, sets up cameras in the school hallways and shoots some guys, while his companion tries to escape the scene.

Owen is the more normal one, crushing on a girl named Chrissy instead of devoting all his time to firing practice and bully identification like his friend Matt (played by director Johnson). There’s a third (never seen?) boy named Jared who’s filming a documentary of Matt & Owen – his presence is sometimes noted but usually not, and he appears to be present during the actual shooting, which was inspired as much by school shootings in the news as cult movies. So our The Dirties is his documentary footage, mixed with the stuff Owen and Matt film, plus their The Dirties uncompleted feature.

Watched this because of the excellent Cinema Scope interview with the director:

Matt is always feeling the camera. And he’s not alone. The concept of always seeing the camera and always feeling like you’re on camera is a very modern problem. And by “problem,” I don’t even necessarily mean that it’s a negative thing — this is just something that we need to consider. Kids these days are always filming themselves and they’re always acting like they’re on TV. Matt is just a guy that has actively put himself on TV 24/7. So he’s always trying to perform. And he can’t break the spell because he’s made this rule for himself of performing.

Johnson believes that realistic performances are paramount, so instead of casting actors for small roles, he performs the movie in public spaces.

All you’re seeing in The Dirties is just a lot of really good acting from people who don’t know that they’re acting. … The closest thing is something like Borat, but we’re not making fun of people here. We’re the stupid ones. I’m always the one who doesn’t know what’s going on. … That old man who walks up when Owen gets hit with a rock is the same kind of example. It’s not even a joke, that moment, it’s simply reality. The old man was just there, and didn’t know what was going on. The joke is on us.

Possession (1981, Andrzej Zulawski)

Funny that I’d watch this a couple days after The Tenant, not knowing of their connections. Both are made by Polish directors who started by working under Andrzej Wajda, both star Isabelle Adjani, involve protagonists living in apartments away from their native countries, and don’t seem like horror movies at all until they go nuts in the second half.

Sam Neill (same year he played Damien in Omen 3) returns to wife Adjani (a couple years after Herzog’s Nosferatu) in divided Berlin after a long time away on a spy job (he gets paid in wads of cash). It’s a rocky homecoming, and there’s much yelling around their son Bob, but each claims to have been faithful – until Adjani’s friend Marjie (Fassbinder star Margit Carstensen) delights in telling Neill that Adjani has another man, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent of The Last Metro and The Serpent’s Egg), an annoying new-age super-self-confident dude whose mother (Johanna Hofer of Above Suspicion and A Farewell to Arms) supports the affair (Heinrich also has a wife and kid we never see). Screaming fights ensue (“If I’d known [Heinrich] existed in this world I’d have never had Bob with you”), Adjani acts more erratic and Neill acts more obsessed (he reverse-lookups Heinrich’s address in the white pages), and I’m worried that this won’t be a horror movie at all, but a relationship drama that says women are shrews who tear apart marriages with their selfish desires (Zulawski was inspired by his own bitter divorce).

Not a good sign for your relationship when you sit at different tables:

Heinrich vs. Neill:

But then! Neill hires a private eye (who is terribly obvious when tailing people) to follow his wife and it turns out she’s staying in a third apartment, a place Heinrich doesn’t know about, and he spins bouncing off the walls when he finds out. Investigating further (by walking right in), the detective is killed by a psychic demon, followed a few scenes later by his partner (huh, a sympathetic gay character in 1981). Yes, Adjani is cheating on both men with a Scanner tentacle-demon, and there’s a pod-person connection when Neill meets his son’s schoolteacher who is the spitting image of his wife but with green glowing eyes.

Adjani takes care of the detective’s partner:

Trouble in the subway:

Neill becomes crazily thrilled by all this, gives Heinrich the demon-apartment address then kills Heinrich himself in a bathroom when the demon doesn’t finish him off. He later blows up the apartment, stabs Marjie for good measure, provokes the cops (I don’t understand how he thought ramming their cars with a taxi would end well) and plots to escape with Adjani, but she has plans of her own, finally (amidst a police shootout) revealing her new glowing-green-eyed Sam Neill pod person (“I wanted to show it to you. It is finished now”), who escapes the shootout.

Bloody Sam Neill driving a motorcycle through Berlin screaming:

Banned in the UK, though Adjani won best actress in France (over Huppert, Ardant and Deneuve) and it was nominated at Cannes the year Wajda’s Man of Iron won. I liked this an awful lot, and am looking for more Zulawski movies (Third Part of the Night, The Devil and On The Silver Globe sound good).

Amer (2009, Cattet & Forzani)

Watched this belatedly after loving their follow-up The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Some critics who’d seen Amer said that Strange Colour was the same ol’ thing, but I doubted that would be a problem since Strange Colour was supremely stylish and enjoyable, and sure enough, so was this.

I’m grasping the story even less here, or at least not grasping how they’re supposed to work together, except visually/stylistically. It’s in three parts, each following Ana at different ages. Firstly, young Ana is fighting to the death with the family maid Graziella over Ana’s dead-ish grandfather’s locket.

Then sullen teenaged Ana follows her mom into town, having sensual visions of escape.

Finally, adult Ana returns to the old family home, and is maybe murdered by a black-gloved stalker.

The directors are sound-effects fetishists (and use 1970’s movie scores) so the whole thing sounds as great as it looks. No familiar actors: Ana’s father Jean-Michel Vovk is in all the Cattet/Forzani movies and cab driver (murderer?) Harry Cleven was in a couple of Godard films. Can’t tell if the movies are all empty style or rich and deep, but they’re a total blast to watch and mysterious enough that, if having people over to watch weird movies was a realistic option, these would be the top contenders.

Breadcrumb Trail (2014, Lance Bangs)

Ian Mackaye: “It turns out, as I found out later on, people in Louisville are just fucking crazy”

Feat. Steve Albini, David Yow, Matt Sweeney, Corey “Touch & Go” Rusk, Jon and Jason of Rodan, David Grubbs, James Murphy.

So many of my music heroes in one place. This made me rethink my resolve to watch fewer rock docs. Mostly they’re the same old thing, but when they’re good, when they can recontextualize the music, illustrate it in new ways, or give amazing backstory where you see rehearsal footage of Spiderland coming together, listen to Tweez engineer Albini discuss how Spiderland’s straightforward production by Brian Paulson became his ideal, and you think how that’s the style Albini’s mostly known for these days, and the same week you watch the doc the new Shellac album Dude Incredible comes out and you’re listening to it (on vinyl of course) and thinking does it sound this way because of Spiderland? Does everything sound the way it does because of Spiderland? And you go on a drive and play June of 44’s Sharks & Sailors and think it sounds like a sequel to Spiderland, and maybe everything is a sequel to Spiderland. When The For Carnation toured on their self-titled album and were mostly ignored by the ignorant, talky crowd, I guess that was the low point of the post-Slint wave, but with the doc and reunion shows, it seems like it’s coming around again.

I knew I’d seen interviewee Brett Eugene Ralph’s name before – he wrote The Whole of the Law, which Catherine Irwin covers.

Britt (drummer) and Brian are the stars of the show (sorry Pajo, love ya). It’s claimed that Britt does half the vocals on Spiderland, but Brian does Good Morning Captain and Washer, so which parts are we talking about?

Many things are claimed. The Lizard/Albini/Britt house-sitting Mouthbreather story is hilariously repeated. Britt won’t comment on the legendary “anal breathing tapes” and whether they make an appearance on Tweez, but Bangs seems to have one of the tapes.

An expanded Louisville Family Tree is needed. Ned Oldham was in Britt & Brian’s first band Languid & Flaccid. Then Brian formed Maurice (which opened for Glenn Danzig’s Samhain on tour) and Britt drummed for Squirrel Bait (that’s him on the cover art, right?). Pajo joined Maurice (“it’s like Slint but fast”) and recruited his best friend Ethan into Slint when Maurice broke up. Songs were titled for band members’ parents and pets and the band’s first show was during service at a church. That’s Will Oldham in a crash helmet in the Tweez cover car’s driver’s seat.

Todd Brashear joined from hardcore band Solution Unknown after Ethan quit over Albini’s oddball production of Tweez. Britt and Brian went off to Northwestern. In Spring 1989 Albini recorded the Glenn/Rhoda EP, calling the band last-minute with some extra studio time, went unreleased until 1994. Slint played Dreamerz with Matt Sweeney’s high school band. Producer Brian Paulson was picked after Brian watched him recording Bastro’s Sing The Troubled Beast. Spiderland was extensively worked out over a summer between semesters, I think, and Brian quit immediately after the recording. All four members backed Oldham on the early Palace recordings, and Slint reunited for practices in ’92 and ’94 but nothing came of them. Most surprisingly (besides the fact that the band members were about 20 when Slint broke up) it’s claimed that Britt “has everything to do with” the way The Breeders’ Pod and Safari EP sound. He showed up everywhere, including on Sally Timms records, and has a new group called Watter.

Chronicle of a Summer (1961, Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin)

Before looking for critical articles and reading the Criterion extras, I supposed this was an important film for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s part of the French New Wave movement to bring the new, portable film cameras into the streets. Then it’s a portrait of the times, an ethnography of 1961 Parisians and their thoughts, two years before Le Joli Mai did similar work with a more political flavor. And it’s also a total meta-film, which I hadn’t realized going in.

Rouch & Morin introduce their “novel experiment of film-truth” to interviewer Marceline. I correctly assumed this was Marceline Loridan Ivens of A Tale of the Wind. Either I’d read it before, or she was mentioned in opening credits, or she’s just the only Marceline I know of. Anyway, they intend for her to ask people “how do you live? What do you do all day,” and everyone’s acting like this is the first time people have ever been interviewed on camera.

A backlit Marceline from the best shot in the film:

Then a montage of Marceline interviewing people on the street, or trying to, since nobody is much interested. I was afraid the whole movie would be like this. They find some people willing to talk (ahem, friends of the filmmakers) and hang out at their places. They find a black student named Landry, and one of the first questions is “so you don’t mind being black?” Marceline gets her own turn to speak, then they regroup and discuss their progress. “So far, the film has confined itself to take in the events of this summer of 1960,” then they bring in the war in Algeria, racism, the newly independent Congo, Marceline’s concentration camp tattoo (Landry: “I’ve seen a film about them, Night and Fog“) which leads into a dreamy monologue about her camp experience, and the movie starts to get interesting. Interview subject Angelo is being harassed by his employer for participating in the film. Landry goes to St. Tropez as “the black explorer of holiday France.” Morin: “You know Rouch and I are making a film. We don’t agree. Rouch thinks life is fun and I don’t.”

Landry:

This is the first movie I’ve seen to include its own test screening. Participants and non-participants give their reactions. “It’s completely phony.” “Extremely painful. When it’s not terrifyingly boring, it’s at the cost of total indecency.” Finally, the directors interview each other about the test screening results. “As soon as they’re more sincere than in life, they’re labelled either as hams or exhibitionists.” One of them finally decides the film is about the failure to communicate (isn’t that what all films are about?).

Morin was a sociologist who’d coined the phrase cinema-verite three years earlier. Rouch had already made 20 documentaries at this point (including Les Maître fous) and would make 80 more (including Rose and Landry two years later – a follow-up?). Produced by Argos Films (which released Night and Fog). The second most intense interview subject after Marceline is Cahiers du Cinema secretary Marilu Parolini, who later cowrote four Rivette films and The Spider’s Stratagem. Cameramen included Michel Brault (Mon Oncle Antoine) and Raoul Coutard (at least 15 Godard films).

Marilu…

and her boyfriend Jacques Rivette:

S. Di Iorio:

Morin was largely responsible for the film’s radical content: alternately analyst, priest, and spectator, he led the in-depth conversations that formed the backbone of the project and worked to facilitate moments of communal contact … Rouch, on the other hand, was concerned with form, and spent much of the production developing a walking-camera approach – they called it “pedovision” – that offset the closed-room structure of his partner’s scenes with renegade expeditions into contempo­rary France. While the film’s oscillation between sincere attention (Morin wanted to listen) and anarchic exuberance (Rouch brought water skis) almost justifies Morin’s self-deprecating description of the two of them as a kind of Martin and Lewis of ethnographic cinema, what matters more than these differences is the fact that, as partners, they shared fundamentally similar values. Both were confident that cinema offered a means to analyze everyday life; both believed that invaluable discoveries could result from what Lautréamont and the surrealists framed as the friction of unexpected encounters; both were convinced that their film would be determined by the chance associations and meandering pathways of open-ended conversations.

For Chronicle, Rouch and engineer André Coutant developed a prototype of the first handheld, sync-sound 16 mm camera ever used in France.

Morin:

I thought we would start from a basis of truth and that an even greater truth would develop. Now I realize that if we achieved anything, it was to present the problem of truth. We wanted to get away from theater, from spectacle, to enter into direct contact with life. But life is also theater, life is also spectacle.

V/H/S/2 (2013)

More anthology nonsense, but this time (with the possible exception of the final alien segment) each found-footage first-person story actually has a reason for having cameras present – though again these are all digital cameras and there’s no reason they’d have all been transferred to VHS, besides that ever since The Ring people think videotapes are haunted.

Framing story is by Adam Wingard associate Simon Barrett – a private-eye/video-blackmailer couple is hired by a mom to find her college kid who is presumed missing, but has actually disappeared into a cult of haunted VHS-tape trading.

Phase I Clinical Trials by Adam Wingard, since I am accidentally determined to see every Adam Wingard movie. He also made the terrible A Horrible Way To Die (terrible’s what it is). I think the lead guy who gets a cybernetic eye is Wingard himself. He sees ghosts, and soon meets a nose-ringed girl with cybernetic ear who hears ghosts and wants to have sex with him in order to drown out the ghost sounds. This doesn’t work for long. Ghosts drown the girl and he ends up cutting out his fake eye with a knife as the ghosts slowly approach. Presumably this is a remake of Johnnie To’s My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

A Ride in the Park by Sanchez and Hale, two of the original Blair Witch guys, brings some fun and comic zombie mayhem to the proceedings. A dying girl interrupts a biker, then he gets bitten and they both become zombies. But his helmet-mounted GoPro is still running, and records his attack on a family picnic. Happy ending: he recognizes what has happened and blows his own brains out.

Safe Haven by the guy who made The Raid movies and a guy who made a couple of Indonesian horrors, has a camera crew interviewing a commune death cult. It’s an odd segment because the camera crew is incompetent, full of relationship drama and uncharged batteries and general lack of preparation, so why is this the organization the reclusive cult finally allows into their compound on the day of mass suicide / zombie apocalypse / demon summoning?

Slumber Party Alien Abduction is by the Hobo With A Shotgun team, and as with that movie, the title says it all. Parents are away so the kids invite friends over and they all have sex and throw water balloons and torment each other, until aliens come for them.

Fun movies to watch on weekdays in Shocktober when I only have 20 minutes to spare (The ABCs of Death is for when I only have three minutes to spare). Still not so great, but surely better than part one.